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Hank Williams Beyond Musical Labels by Mike Nessing

Writer Mike Nessing takes on Hank Williams from a completely unique perspective.

You say Country, I say Western. Let’s call the whole thing incredible.

My biggest musical pet peeve is labels. I hate ‘em with a passion. This is a not an easy argument to defend though, because you need labels to discuss certain types of music accurately. Then there’s the whole promotion thing. How do you advertise tickets to say, a jazz festival without labeling it as such? It’s a lofty goal, but I really try to avoid categorizing music into anything other than “good” or “bad”. My reason being that practically every one of my favorite tunes have elements of SEVERAL different musical categories. In other words, the best music transcends genres. I would further offer up that many people miss out on great music simply because of how it’s labeled.

Now, having said all this I furthered my musical journey earlier this week by jumping head first into Hank Williams’s 40 Golden Greats. It’s right about now where I start to realize why my “evolved” state of being regarding music categorization will never work on the population as a whole. You can’t hear this without thinking “Country”. However, de-construct it a little and we get more. There are subtle percussion techniques that pre-date rock and roll .This is 1947. People like Elvis and Bo Diddley evolved out of this. Stuff like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”. Through the ‘70’s and onto the ‘80’s,where bands like Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant took this rhythmic template to ride a “New” wave. Specifically, I’m talking about that “chunka, chunka, chunka” usually on the 2 and the 4 beat. My ears told me initially that this was Hank’s guitar. He’s actually using the guitar as a percussion instrument. Listen closer though, and the guitar is “doubled” with snare drum, more often than not played with brushes. Two instruments recorded together to form an entirely different sound.

You could argue that there are elements of opera in Hank’s voice. Some of that yodeling that he does is incredibly complex and difficult to sing. The pedal steel and fiddle players show off some virtuoso chops that I can only describe as jazzy. These lyrics of sorrow, jubilation, of love and love lost. Country Western cliché’s were born from these words. He didn’t just help create a musical style, he romanticized an entire class of people. They could relate to what he was saying. That’s why I wouldn’t call it Country. Because it’s much ,much more. These are touchstones in American culture and templates in popular songwriting structure. At least a handful of his songs could be considered “standards” and many, many more can be considered Country standards. There I go again, labeling things. I hate when I do that.

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