We gave it a C
The title is a tad inaccurate: If they really wanted to be in the Hank Williams tradition, each of the country-music stars appearing in this salute would have to: write a slew of ineffably beautiful, profoundly sad songs; consume liquor and pop pills in prodigious amounts; and die of heart failure by the age of 29. This certainly would give new meaning to the current country-music catch phrase the New Traditionalism.
Instead, what we have on In the Hank Williams Tradition is the PBSification of country music’s only pure genius. Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Kris Kristofferson, and others troop on to offer little bits of tidied-up biographical details and banal observations about Williams’ importance. The best remark is Kristofferson’s: ”No one else had such a talent for making suffering enjoyable.”
What’s missing? Everything implied by the way the critic Nick Tosches once described Williams’ best music: ”a mixture of whiskey, lamb’s blood, and grave dirt.” The guest stars sing chipper interpretations of such Williams songs as ”Move It On Over,” ”Cold, Cold Heart,” and ”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but they vanish from your memory the moment you hear Williams’ own hard-edged versions.
The only real insult done to Williams is the presence of Chet Atkins, who as a producer and Nashville power-broker in the ’60s oversaw the dilution and contradiction of everything Williams’ music stood for. Chet, purveyor of string sections and cooing backup singers, just ain’t in the Hank Williams tradition.
And Travis’ jaunty version of Williams’ ”I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is pretty appalling, all the more so because the talented Travis seems so blissfully unaware of the poignant fatalism in the lyric he’s singing. C