Hank Williams: The BiographyBy Colin Escott with George Merritt & William MacEwen
Back Bay Books, 400 pp., $15.95 (paper)
When Colin Escott's biography of Hank Williams was originally published in 1994, it was hailed as definitive. There had been attempts to write this story over the years, but this one finally got it right. In the intervening years, more information has come to light, especially about the country music star's last hours, with Escott being given access to previously denied files, like his autopsy, which led to this new, expanded paperback edition. Written in the same meticulous manner as Peter Guralnick's double-volume look at the life of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams: The Biography pieces together its subject's daily life and captures the man behind that unearthly voice. Unfortunately, as Escott writes near book's end, the truth is irrefutable: "The final paradox is that Hank Williams left no journals, almost no letters, no extended interviews, and the people who knew him best have to admit that on some level they didn't know him at all." There's a great deal of information on one of America's greatest singer-songwriters from his earliest days in Alabama and his struggles in the 1940s for success. But the data available from those days is often contradictory or difficult to pin down; most of the people who experienced those times are no longer with us or have conflicting recollections about what happened. When Williams moves to Nashville and becomes the star of the Grand Ole Opry, the story becomes more compelling. He may have had trouble with his wife, Audrey, and battled alcoholism and nearly constant back pain, but his ability to charm audiences nationwide and write songs that still ring true are presented in a way that's electrifying. Williams' rapid decline is harrowing, even if some of the details are missing or unknowable. Despite these drawbacks, Escott's account of America's favorite hillbilly singer is as close to the final word on the subject as we're likely to get.