Chapter 50 from Country*

by Shelby Stephenson

Photo of Shelby and Linda by Jan G. Hensley

Photo of Shelby and Linda by Jan G. Hensley

A biography of a place rolls up in the

sand:  wind blows an image of a burned-down


house:  a shotgun appears in the hand of

one who escapes the fire and in time wind


builds a face, eyes, a spindly man hunched

over a shadow that looks like a microphone


and it is all sand shaping I see in

a life of one mother scrounging to clothe


the children and put food on the table, the

father, a shell-shocked veteran of World


War I, living off and on in a veteran’s

hospital, the face, the spine, the limbs shaking


off what grains a person gains and walks

road-shoulders, dirt sidewalks, and the streets of


Montgomery, Alabama − calling the boy

to grow up − around Greenville, I believe,


where the little boy meets an African-American

named Rufus Payne, nicknamed Tee Tot:  the boy’s


about eight years old, the year I learned you

don’t live forever, when I lived for hours in


the crotch of an apple tree on Paul’s Hill

and dreamed things would turn out right and so Tee Tot


played the guitar and the boy climbed down the tree

and followed Tee Tot around, begging him


to teach him to play guitar and that’s why,

I’ll bet, Hank Williams’s songs hold so much pain


and blues of troubled times; his mother took

in boarders at rooming houses in Greenville


and hired herself out to clean houses and

dress hogs, gutting them like a Woman and


pulling haslets out, two at a time, always

walking to a fence-post to hang the maw,


the end of a hog’s biggest gut, jiggling

the wire to dry the sun’s blood into sunset,


the hedges skirting her life, this woman,

Lillie Skipper Williams, strong enough to raise


Hank’s daughter, Jett Williams, imposing strong

for Audrey, Hank’s wife and the mother of


Hank, Jr., who was about three when his

father died in the backseat of a babyblue


Cadillac convertible near Oak Hill, West

Virginia, either late December 31, 1952, or


January 1, 1953, on the way to do a

concert in Canton, Ohio, the boy living


his twenty-nine years, writing his life into

his songs.  Bobbie Jett was Jett Williams’s


mother:  see Jett’s autobiography, written

with Pamela Thomas − Ain’t Nothing As Sweet as My


Baby:  The Story of Hank Williams’

Lost Daughter (Berkley Publishing Group:  1992).  I


try hard to get it right, to show my concern, my

love, my scheme:  let me not be afraid:  for


forty years I waited to read biographies of

Hank Williams:  the first one left me too close


to myself, how I sang on the radio at

Coats, North Carolina, 1952, my brother Marshall


playing his banjo, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and

Loud, Loud Music,” first, for him to play, and


then “Honky Tonk Blues”:  Ray Godwin, emcee, said

I reminded him of Hank hunching over in a


hug around the microphone:  I left my

home, too, the rural route, my parents


knowing I was stepping out, beyond the

farm, not to get the honky tonk blues but


to go to college:  I left my guitar at home:  I

had no money:  I worked for my room and


board, “busting” tables, morning shift, Lenoir

Dining Hall, at times falling asleep on the cart


which held the dishes, always singing in the corridor

leading to the dishwash-room, “You’ll Never


Walk Alone.”  Thank you, Edwin S. Lanier,

Director of the Student Self-Help Bureau.


My feet propped up on the pull-out leaf of

my desk, I never quite know why My


Story, old as Time, does not include my

leaving home for a stint in Nashville, Tennessee.


A musical career defining Who

am I?  After reading biographies of


Hank Williams, after reading The Faron Young Story: 

Live Fast, Love Hard (Illinois:  2007),


Diane Diekman, after reading San Antonio Rose:

The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Illinois:  Illinois


Books Edition:  1986), Charles R. Townsend,

after reading Looking Back to See:  A Country Music


Memoir (Arkansas:  2005), Maxine Brown, after

reading Ragged But Right:  The Life & Times of George Jones


(Contemporary Books:  1984), Dolly Carlisle, after

reading Down in Orburndale:  A Songwriter’s Youth in


Old Florida (Louisiana, LSU:  2007), Bobby Braddock, after

reading more − my favorite Hank Williams bio my friend


Bill Koon wrote:  Hank Williams: A Bio-Bibliography

(originally published, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT,


1983, reprinted U PR Mississippi:  2001), George W. “Bill” Koon,

my preference, because Koon’s book contains less hype


than the others I’ve read.  Let’s say Hank Williams was

born September 17, 1923, died (I learned of his death)


January 1, 1953, elected to Country Music Hall of

Fame, 1961:  let’s say he was a lot like Jimmie Rodgers, the


way each did in a short space what they did, Hank

writing all those songs in about half a decade, Rodgers, too − Rodgers


dead at thirty-five, Hank at twenty-nine.  No question, Hank

might have stayed around Montgomery, if Audrey


had not said Let’s go to Nashville:  I don’t know:  holding

things together is not easy, especially if you remember


as a little boy your mother going out and killing

what small game she could find, food for the table, including


road-kill if it was warm, the father in a V. A. hospital

a lot, plus working away from home as an engineer


on a log train for a lumber company, no beds to

sleep on in the house, the mother stuffing feed sacks


with corn shucks for bedsteads:  I must say a shuck-bed’s

not bad; old people used to do that:  I remember


featherbeds.  My father tells of killing a goose for

feathers his mother, my grandmuh Nancy, made


pillows and beds out of:  our slave girl July and

my greatgrandparents, Manly and Martha, certainly


knew how bed-shucks felt:  Hank’s mother, Lillie, could

tell her son loved music, for he knelt by her side while she


played the organ in church; Tee Tot set Hank’s love

not for amber-neon but for the country blues:  consider


these songs Hank wrote or sang, each one enrapt with that

miserable feel for troubled souls:  “Long Gone Lonesome


Blues,”  “Dear John,” “Why Don’t You Love Me

Like You Used to Do,” I’ll Never Get Out of this


World Alive,” “Lonesome Whistle,” “I’m So Lonesome

I Could Cry,” “Alone and Forsaken,” “I Won’t Be


Home No More,” “You Gonna Change or I’m Gonna

Leave,” “A House without Love Is Not a Home,”


“House of Gold,” “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Looking,”

“Cold, Cold Heart,” “Someday You’ll Call My Name


and I Won’t Answer,”  “I Don’t Care If Tomorrow

Never Comes,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Take These


Chains from My Heart,” “Wedding Bells,” “The Lonesome

Sound of a Train Going By Makes Me Want to


Moan and Cry,” “Crazy Heart,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Half as Much,”

“Kaw-liga,” “Darling, I Could Never Be Ashamed


of You,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “There’s a Tear in

My Beer,” “Darling, Let’s Turn Back the Years,” “You Win


Again,” and scores more.  His first hit he didn’t

write.  Cliff Friend and Irving Mills?  Friend wrote


popular songs for Tin Pan Alley which spread from

late nineteenth century until the Great Depression.  My


mind dishes pans as drums, a bunch of pianos of varied

tunings and timings, upright, set in the faces of


customers drinking beer and having fun.  Friend

wrote the words to “Lovesick Blues” and dozens


others, including “When My Dreamboat Comes Home.”

Irving Mills, a jazz music publisher, printed “Lovesick Blues.”


2004. Audio Farm Records. CD $15

2004. Audio Farm Records. CD $15

Chapter 50 is not out anywhere.

It comes from a 52 Chapter (unpublished book):  poem, memoir, essay, some poetry:

I don’t quite know what it is:  it is “true.”  I know that, to memory, whatever memory is,

and to joy, and the beauty of joy, and the sorrow, too, of all the desire in everyone’s life

from morn until night and home.

About the author

Shelby Stephenson’s The Hunger of Freedom (2014) is now available from Red Dashboard ( His Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the Bellday Prize (2008), Allen Grossman, judge.



  1. Congratulations. Good for you, Shelby. I come from an old time music family–the Cofer Brothers of Georgia, so I grew up hearing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Crazy Heart” and all.My brother grew up playing classical music on the radio and Mother would chase him away from the radio with her broom and turn the station back to country.

  2. Pingback: Chapter 50 from Country* | NC Prism

  3. Pingback: Happy Birthday to Us! | Tell Us a Story

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