In today’s blog entry we examine Hank’s fans and look into what is was about Mr. Williams that had the country so enthralled, even now. Then we introduce you to Bryce Gangel, who plays “The Waitress” in Hank Williams: Lost Highway. The Waitress, who spends her days working in a truck stop diner listening to the radio, very much represents the every man/woman to whom Hank Williams meant so much.
Montgomery, Alabama has seen its fair share of history. As the state’s capitol, it’s been the site of Civil War battles, huge civil rights demonstrations, and many a state funeral. And yet to this day it’s said that the crowd of 25,000 people who gathered for Hank Williams’s funeral in 1953 was the largest Montgomery has ever seen.
Just what was it that gave Hank this enormous draw? Stick-thin in those shoulder-padded suits, Hank was polite in radio interviews and a notorious mess in his private life. He didn’t dance like Elvis or flirt like Sinatra, and yet something happened to people when he stepped on the stage. Even those who shared the spotlight with him couldn’t place just what the secret was. Jerry Rivers, fiddle player in the Drifting Cowboys, reminisced, “I could not then, nor can I yet understand the almost uncanny power Hank Williams held over his audience.” A fellow Opry headliner concurs: “The mystery of Hank Williams, I have never been able to figure it out. What was the magnetism that he had? …When he came on stage, it was over. People would come unglued.”
It may elude words, but his twenty-first century listeners understand that the deep pull of Hank’s presence still emanates from his recordings almost sixty years after his death. This disembodied Hank, a voice in a speaker, was likely the one Hank’s early fans first came to know. The radio was a relatively new medium, one which had risen to popularity during Hank’s lifetime. It granted people unprecedented access to music and information, even if they were illiterate or couldn’t leave the house. In fact, the sudden prevalence of radio 1920s is credited with making hillbilly music a mainstream genre. Tiny local radio stations began to appear all over the south, and when rural folk learned that they could record a song or two for air play they began to migrate into town in search of a little fame and money. Stations began to broadcast hour-long showcases where local talent played for live audiences; it was thus that shows like the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry were born.
The Grand Ole Opry broadcast was a major weekly event for country music fans. Neighbors who couldn’t afford the trip into Nashville to watch the live show would gather for what was essentially a tailgate party, hooking the radio up to a car battery and blasting Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl while they drank beer and barbecued.
Anyone lucky enough to see the Opry in person on a night when the Drifting Cowboys played was in for a truly life-changing experience. Until things really fell apart in 1952, Hank’s rampant alcoholism didn’t interfere with his clear, unbroken singing voice or the concentrated power of his onstage gaze. Many viewers have reported that no matter where in the house they sat, when Hank sang he seemed to be speaking right to them. Audiences screamed for encores, particularly of “Lovesick Blues,” and Hank usually fulfilled their wishes. He was unusually generous with his fans one-on-one, happily hanging around after a show to sign autographs and stand for pictures.
The simple candor of Hank’s mien and music made fans believe he understood them like no one else could, and they felt the need to tell him so. In an interview, Hank once stated, “When you get to be a success, folks have a habit of writing you and telling you their troubles. All kinds of troubles. If their husband dies and their left with eight starving kids, they write. If their sweetheart done them wrong, they write. If they feel sorta blue, the write. I dunno, I reckon they think I’m something like the Red Cross.”
Bryce Gangel plays The Waitress in our production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway. She acts as the narrator of Hank’s public life as he rose to prominence on the American musical stage. Bryce’s natural warmth and light make her an instantly relatable “everywoman” in the show – the lonesome dreamer looking for a better life. She is a graduate of Loyola College and a former Oklahoma resident.
What aspect of Hank’s story do you most identify with? Why?
Bryce: His struggle to stay true to himself and his roots. I think it can be hard to be innovative and as successful as he was and still be genuine.
Are you similar to the character you are playing?
Bryce: I think we are similar. She’s openly described as lonely, optimistic, cheerful. I think she’s a product of her environment, but a dreamer! I’m originally from Oklahoma and think I at one point felt that same need to “escape”.
If you could see any musician perform (living or dead) who would it be?
Bryce: Hands down – Bjork. She’s a true artist and even if you can’t identify with all of her music immediately, you have to respect her creativity, passion, and freakiness. I love her!
What are you most excited about for this production?
Bryce: I am most excited to incorporate a live band into the show. I mean, hello!
What’s your favorite Hank Williams lyric?
Bryce: “Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire!”
Stay tuned for our next blog post, when we introduce the musical mentor who taught Hank to play the guitar, and first introduced him to the Southern Blues music that would become his legacy.