By Jim Farber
During his tragically brief life — just 29 years — Hank Williams changed the face of popular music in America, and inaugurated the modern era of Country Western Music.
11 of his recordings reached No. 1 on the Hit Parade including classics like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Jambalaya” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” But it was his last recorded single, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” that proved prophetic. On January 1, 1953, a victim of alcoholism and drug abuse, Williams’ lifeless body was found in the backseat of his Cadillac. In 2004, Roll-ing Stone magazine ranked him No. 74 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
If you’re a fan of Hank Williams’ music, you know how special it is. If you’re not familiar with the man and his music, you should be.
Jason Petty knows Hank Williams and his music intimately. The 39-year-old actor won an Obie Award (off-Broadway’s equivalent of a Tony) in 2003 for his portrayal of the ill-fated performer in the musical bio-drama, “Lost Highway.” Now, Petty is starring in his own musical homage to Williams, “Hank and My Honky Tonk Hero-es.” It’s a musical time machine; a festival of Williams’ songs performed in the style of the Grand Ole Opry. And it’s coming to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood for a limited engagement, May 14-24.
It’s country music, not gasoline that flows through Petty’s veins. He grew up in Nashville, home of the greatest country musicians in the world. His relationship with Hank Williams, however, did not really begin until he was chosen to star in “Lost Highway.”
“When I was preparing for the role, I had six months to do research,” he explained. “I went down to his hometown and talked to all the people around there, that I could find, that knew him. I wanted to find out personal things they might know about his day-to-day life. I wanted to find out who he was. Some of the questions I asked might have seemed mundane, like: ‘What kind of laugh did he have? Did he ever talk about his personal life?’ But, to an actor preparing to play a role, they were important.”
Later, when he set about creating his own show about Williams and his music, Petty said, “Putting ‘Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes’ together opened up a world of possibilities.
“‘Lost Highway’ was a purely theatrical piece, and I was literally portraying Hank Williams,” Petty explained. ‘Lost Highway’ was a great show.
“The thing it was lacking was the stories that went behind the songs. You never found out what was going on in Hank’s personal life when he wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ or ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’ I wanted to create a show that would give people an idea of who he really was and how he was influenced. How does a kid born as dirt-poor as you can be in the South, who didn’t have a father figure in his life, whose mother took him from town to town, who learned music at the foot of a black blues singer, grow up to become Hank Williams?
“In this show, I come out as me; I don’t pretend to be Hank Williams. Instead I tell everyone how I found this information. Then we (Petty and the four members of his band) take you through Hank’s life and his music.
“The show also delves into the darker side of Williams’ life. We take you through his troubled marriage, his drinking problem and his addiction to prescription medication that led to his missing shows. But there’s also a lot of humor. No one’s a downer all the time. And Hank certainly wasn’t. The downer parts of his life only took up about 10%. But it was that 10% that killed him. The bad times were really bad. But the good times were really good.”
Speaking of good times, as a final question I couldn’t resist asking Petty what it was like when he and his wife, Hope, exchanged their wedding vows in 2002 at Elvis’s Graceland Mansion in Memphis, TN. “It was awesome,” said Petty. “During the ceremony, they played Elvis music. I asked if instead of the Wedding March they could play ‘Hunk a Hunk of Burnin’ Love.’ My wife didn’t think that was funny.”
“Hank and My Honky Heroes” opens at the El Portal Theatre (5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA) May 14-24. Shows Wednesdays-Fridays are at 8pm, 3and 8pm on Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets are $40-$50. For more information, visit www.elportaltheatre.com or call (818) 508-4200.