Arty Hill & the Long Gone Daddys,
Montgomery on My Mind
(Cow Island, 2009)

If you've been around long enough, your first instinct on encountering a Hank Williams tribute disc is to wonder what the point is. But as you reflect on the matter, depressing thoughts cloud the mind. Maybe there is a reason after all. The cultural distance between us and Hank -- as all his fans called him -- grows daily. Given Music City's antipathy to the rural Southern sounds Hank represented, the distance that separates us from Jan. 1, 1953 -- when Hank was found dead in the backseat of a car taking him to gig in Ohio -- feels like more than five and a half decades. I'm sure there are young "country" fans who know as much of Hank Williams & the Drifting Cowboys as they know of Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers. Nothing, in other words.

But when he was remembered, it was as the classic romantic hero, which is to say a vastly talented, tortured soul who died young. For years he personified country music. The songs he wrote and the songs he didn't write but with which he was associated (including his signature "Lovesick Blues," first cut in 1928 by Emmett Miller) were endlessly reprised. Probably more songs were written about Hank than about any other hillbilly performer in history. Some years ago, Emmylou Harris recorded one of them, "Rollin' & Ramblin' (The Death of Hank Williams)," which I wrote with Robin & Linda Williams.

Perhaps, in retrospect, we should have known that the end was in sight when in time Hank became "Hank Williams Sr." I think I sensed as much one day when a repairman came to our house and, hearing me address our cat Hank, asked if we had named him after Hank Williams Jr. "Hank Williams had a son?" I asked. (Well, not really. Wish I had, though.)

Arty Hill's band takes its name from Hank's "I'm a Long Gone Daddy," one of five Hank covers -- along with the above-mentioned "Lovesick Blues" -- on this eight-cut EP. The Baltimore-based Hill is a country singer and songwriter under the influence of 1950s hillbilly bands. I am enamored of his distinctive approach to that tradition (see my reviews here on 19 April 2008 and 11 July 2009), and I have no doubt that Hank himself would feel the same. Think of Montgomery on My Mind, a labor of love, as a digest-sized equivalent to Loudon Wainwright III's High, Wide & Handsome, his recent two-disc tribute to Charlie Poole, on which Poole's songs and Wainwright's originals inspired by Poole's life are interspersed.

Three of the songs are Hank compositions, including "Pan American," set to the same melody Woody Guthrie stole for "Grand Coulee Dam." It's the one that adorns the venerable hobo folksong "Wabash Cannon Ball," which Hank and Woody no doubt learned from the popular Carter Family and Roy Acuff recordings. I am fondest, however, of "Take These Chains from My Heart," a major Hank hit written by Hy Heath and Fred Rose, here done in rip-roaring rockabilly style in joyous defiance of the lyrics' maudlin sentiments.

Hill contributes three originals, the instrumental "Don's Bop," after the late Don Helms, Hank's steel player, and the opener "Church on Saturday Night," evoking the glories of the Grand Ole Opry in Hank's day. The elegiac title tune closes the set.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 February 2010

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