"Live fast, love hard and die young," Faron Young sang in his 1955 hit of the same name, "and leave a beautiful memory." No matter whether Young had his late friend Hank Williams in mind: The cliche never fit a hillbilly singer so perfectly.
Williams' 29 years were busy ones: His now-hallowed canon of desperately emotional work made him the most celebrated country artist of his day, and he went out as poetically as any tragic young figure, succumbing to a mix of morphine, alcohol and powerful sedatives in the back of a Cadillac limousine en route to a New Year's Day concert in 1953.
For any young rebel with the gumption to spit in Music City's eye, "next Hank Williams" comparisons still loom, and Williams' name is regularly invoked in song as a touchstone of artistic credibility. Alan Jackson bumped into Williams' ghost in "Midnight in Montgomery." Waylon Jennings wondered aloud, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" And Moe Bandy said it best: "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life."
But if the mythology around the Hillbilly Shakespeare has never been lacking, trustworthy historical detail has been in short supply. There are the embarrassing 1964 movie "Your Cheatin' Heart" -- starring George Hamilton -- and Chet Flippo's intriguing but unsatisfying 1981 first-person biography of the same name. There were unreliable, self-serving accounts by the two dominant women in Williams' life: his mother, Lillie, and first wife, Audrey.
So it's about time that a clear-eyed researcher of Colin Escott's repute has peeled away the layers of legend surrounding Williams' short, dramatic life. Mr. Escott produced and annotated "The Original Singles Collection . . . Plus," an excellent three-CD career overview of Hank Williams released in 1990, and was a consultant on Polydor's eight-volume series of Williams' complete recordings.
And he's the author of the much-lauded "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll," a well-told version of the seismic explosion that transformed popular culture on the heels of Williams' death.
With the help of Williams experts George Merritt and William MacEwen, Mr. Escott's narrative in "Hank Williams: The Biography" gives us our best look yet into Williams' pained, piercing eyes: Teen-age Hank with guitar in hand, following the black street singer Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne around the streets of his hometown of Georgiana, Ala.
The always-confident Hank, penning heart-wrenching classics-to-be such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Alone and Forsaken," but yodeling his way to the big time in 1948 with "Lovesick Blues," a cast-off show tune that had been written the year after he was born. And the persistently drunk and self-destructive Hank, gobbling pills to alleviate the pain from a degenerative spinal condition. After singing his sacred standard, "I Saw the Light," he turned to Minnie Pearl less than a year before his death and told her: "Minnie, I don't see no light. There ain't no light."
Mr. Escott tracks Williams' path from regional success in Montgomery, Ala., to top of the marquee on the Grand Ole Opry. He also reveals Williams' constant battles with Audrey, the talentless but ambitious vocalist and mother of Randall Hank Jr. Audrey, as well as Williams' second wife, Billie Jean, toured under the name "Mrs. Hank Williams" in the months after Williams' death.
The author doesn't turn Williams into a martyred saint. We learn that Williams shorted the pay of his Drifting Cowboys, that there were marital transgressions, that Williams had a fondness for firearms and for reckless alcoholic binges.
The trouble that Mr. Escott comes up against is getting at Williams' inner life, and that's through no fault of his own. As giants of American popular music go, Williams may not be as mysterious as, say, Robert Johnson. But considering the success he achieved in his lifetime, ruling the country charts in the latter half of his six-year recording career, and seeing his songs cross over to the pop world as well -- "Cold, Cold Heart" was a No. 1 hit for Tony Bennett in 1951 -- Williams managed to reveal little about what made him tick. He left no journals, gave no extensive interviews, and, by all accounts, did not enjoy talking about himself.
There is, however, his music. And while Williams' sound was a product of his time, influenced by Roy Acuff's gripping sincerity and Ernest Tubb's detached irony, Mr. Escott understands that Williams' simply rhymed lyrics and familiar melodies accomplished an arresting emotionalism that transcended any genre and speaks timelessly for itself.
Title: "Hank Williams: The Biography"
Author: Colin Escott, with George Merritt and William MacEwen
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length, price: 307 pages, $22.95