Today’s birthday boy is the grand-daddy of them all. Mind you, I wouldn’t say that that point of view was one I held for most of my early listening. Hank Williams? Wasn’t he that hick-sounding guy with the weird chortle and the thin voice? That guy whose songs were all over the soundtrack of The Last Picture Show (1971) and made you glad you weren’t from Texas? Country music, to me as a kid—and I’m meaning well into twenties—was kind of embarrassing. I could accept when some band I liked “went country” with pedal steel and some twang, but that’s only because it was a “flavoring.”
Much of the embarrassment about Country, I came to find out later when I looked into it a bit, was due to what’s been called the “Nashville sound”—all those strings and choirs and saccharine productions. The sort of thing that destroyed most of Johnny Cash’s recordings, after he left Sun. It’s tough to take, to me, in the same way that most radio pop is tough to take.
Hank was well before all that. He’s got the sound everyone who believes in real Country wants to harken to, he’s a honkytonker. So, when I finally got around to some attention to his stuff—fueled by my brother Jerry playing a ton of it one year at the beach as his personal soundtrack—I realized he was a really good songwriter, even if I wasn’t always beguiled by his way of moaaa-whoa-honing the blues. But wait, I already knew today’s song.
First I heard it was in the Grateful Dead’s cover of it on Europe ’72, where it’s not very bluesy or very country, but has a nice easing-going mood. Groovy. Not only that, as I discovered when I heard the song, winter of ’78, covered by John Kay, Jerry Garcia doesn’t sing all the words. I’m not really in favor of abridging the lyrics to a song this well written. I liked Kay’s respectful and kinda soulful version much better anyway. And that’s the version that made one of the nadir tapes I made back when I was experiencing some version of what this song is all about.
Let me put it out there. When I was listening to Kay’s album Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes (1972), the words of this song nailed me. I was addressed because, listening to it, I was hearing it define my situation. It’s the point of view of a man in the unhappy position of knowing he’s been replaced in his would-be beloved’s affections. She’s been seen a-running ’round. He’s just moping around eating his heart out.
But the verse that floored me, and that Garcia dispensed with, is: I’m sorry for your victim now / For soon his head like mine will bow / He’ll give his heart but all in vain / And someday say, “you win again.”
The “you win again” idea keeps coming back (who d’ya think Dylan learned his way with a title/refrain from?) as the admission that, no matter what this poor fool thinks about her, no matter how clear it is that she doesn’t care and probably never did nor ever will, she “wins” because he can’t give it up. He can’t move on. And for some reason that sentiment works better in Country than it does in rock. Rock is supposed to be about sex more than love, but it’s also supposed to be about a world where hip chicks abound. Why keep on darkening the door of this Jezebel?
But that’s the point. When you hear that ol’ Hank Williams honkytonk groove coming across (and maybe this is The Last Picture Show talking), it’s easy to imagine some little one pony precinct where there is like, exactly, one babe who can name her price, and rope in who she will—Cybil Shepherd plays her in the film. Where I was coming from (or rather where I was stewing) in 1978 was about a blonde too.
Anyway, how about those lines of pity for a current rival who, it’s perceived in a kind of camaraderie, is also a victim? (Like the two hicks played by Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms.) Neither is going to really have her, y’know. She’s got a winning hand that beats the time—and smacks the faces—of all these local suckers. And that’s what I like about the Hank version even more than Kay’s version: Hank’s really singing for the sadsack suckers everywhere. Seems like the song should never vanish from local bar jukeboxes, ever.
The other bit that made me shake my head at the late Mr. Williams’ sagacity was the part with which it ends (keeping the best for last is another trick only the best are capable of), about having “no heart, no shame”—that’s just the booze talking, the guy’s probably a mean drunk by now—and, acing it, “you take true love and give the blame.” This is where the masochistic streak lowers its shamed face. The lover is apt to be humiliated because his love—which he feels and she doesn’t—is never “good enough.” So she can take him to task for anything. He’s got to take it: “I guess that I should not complain / I love you still—you win again.”
And never so much as when you’re stronger.
I had to go with this Williams song because of my attachment to it way back then. Another I’m in awe of is “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which the Cowboy Junkies do right proud by on Trinity Sessions (1988). And then there’s “Alone and Forsaken,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do,” and the two songs of his I do remember vividly from childhood: “Hey, Good-lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and a bunch more . . . .
Just trustin’ you was my great sin