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 (www.reddashboard.com) His Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the Bellday Prize (2008), Allen Grossman, judge. www.bellday.com