A New Map to Hank Williams’s Lost Highways

In the new film “I Saw the Light,” a surly Hank Williams, played by Tom Hiddleston, grudgingly consents to an interview with a New York City newspaper reporter. The writer asks Williams how he explains his popularity.

“Everybody has a little darkness in them,” Williams replies, between sips of whiskey. “I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame.” He adds: “I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.”

isawthelightTom Hiddleston as Hank Williams and Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife, Audrey, in “I Saw the Light.”
Credit Sam Emerson/Sony Pictures Classics

More than 60 years after his death at the age of 29, Williams — who has been called “the Hillbilly Shakespeare” for the striking imagery of his songs — apparently still holds that kind of power over listeners, and “I Saw the Light,” scheduled to be released on Friday, March 25, is only the latest manifestation of his legacy.

Most obvious is his perpetual presence in country music. In his brief career, he had more than 30 Top 10 country hits, including the standards “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Over the years, his name has been invoked as the embodiment of artistic integrity (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” by Waylon Jennings) and as a symbol of self-destructive living (“If I get stoned and play all night long, it’s a family tradition,” sang his son, Hank Williams Jr.). One way or another, it seems that he shows up somewhere on nearly every country record.

The impact of Williams’s music, though, extends far beyond Nashville. In 1991, Bob Dylan said, “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter,” while Bruce Springsteen, in his 2012 keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference, described how he had once “lived on” the music of Hank Williams, with its “beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth.” Keith Richards, Beck and Johnny Cash all played on the Grammy-winning tribute album “Timeless” (2001), and for “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” (2011), Jack White, Norah Jones and other artists set unrecorded Williams lyrics to new melodies they composed.  View Full Article >