Welcome to Filament’s on-going blog series, providing insight into the world of Hank Williams, both the real-life man and the production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway coming to the Athenaeum Theatre June 8 – July 8. To kick off the blog, we’ll take a look at The Drifting Cowboys – the name Hank gave every band he ever played with – and what life as a touring country musician of the ’40s and ’50s was like. Stay tuned for our next entry, where you’ll get to meet Filament’s own Drifting Cowboys!
Before we started work on Hank Williams: Lost Highway at Filament, if someone asked us what defined Hank Williams’ music we would probably have had any number of descriptions to offer: “heartbreak,” “loneliness,” or even “yodeling.” Now that we’ve done deeper research into the world of the play, we’re surprised at some of the things we’ve been able to add to this list of defining characteristics. For instance: “road trips.”
While Hank’s lyrics often touch on the classic, romanticized country theme of traveling far from one’s home on lost highways and the lonesome whistles of trains, we were surprised to learn that a huge daily volume of decidedly un-romantic travel played a huge role in the lifestyles of Hank and his band. In order to make money, Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys had to spend each night of each week in a different Southern city. He and the whole band piled into the bucket seat of a car and spent all day squeezed together in close, hot quarters. Travel schedules were punishingly tight: gas station stops couldn’t even last the time it takes to cook a hamburger, so the boys would buy a bag of donuts and a gallon of milk and call that dinner before they jumped out of the car and onto a stage that night.
With all this time spent in the car, when did Hank find the time to sit back and write his famous songs? The answer is that more than one of them was written on the road. In interviews, Hank’s former bandmates recall the fact that Hank was the kind of artist who would think up a whole set of lyrics all of a sudden. On tour, however, there would be no room to pull out a guitar–or even a notebook–with the whole band crammed into a car. So on more than one occasion, Hank would announce that inspiration had struck, and a band member would pull the cardboard out of a freshly-laundered shirt so the songwriter could scrawl the lyrics out right then and there. These humble means produced some major hits, including the well-loved “Jambalaya.”
The Cowboys were surely delighted when Hank’s popularity earned them a coveted spot in the lineup of the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, but even this event didn’t get them more time at home with their families. Opry members were required to perform the Saturday show in Nashville twenty-six weekends out of every year. Though the Opry was a prestigious platform, it hardly paid well: even in the 1960s, the paid to artists was only $44 dollars a show. To keep their earnings up the band had to take off first thing Sunday morning to play a huge outdoor show in one of the “country music parks” in states as far away as Pennsylvania, where the fees were more like $1000 a show. The rest of the week, the Drifting Cowboys rode across the Southern states with Hank for smaller shows, live radio performances, and various publicity events. Many of Hank’s bandmates had families in Nashville, as Hank himself did—but in the average week, it was rare for the Cowboys to spend more than an afternoon with their loved ones.
Over the years many musicians came and went through Hank’s band. They were fired, quit, or drafted into military service. The important thing is that, even though they came and went, these men spent a lot of time with Hank and many of them would have been considered friends of his. There was certainly a love and respect that was built up over the many weeks and years of traveling as they saw the country together, and changed the course of popular music along the way.
Now that you know a little bit about the historical Drifting Cowboys, look out for our next blog post, taking you behind the scenes with Filament’s Drifting Cowboys as seen in Hank Williams: Lost Highway.