‘Hank Williams’ story finds its way to Chicago’s American Blues Theater
By Mary Houlihan August 28, 2013 2:24PM
Matt Brumlow as the title character in "Hank Williams: Lost Highway"
‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway,’ Aug. 30-Oct. 6, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. $19-$39.
Updated: October 1, 2013 6:08AM
Growing up in Georgia, Matt Brumlow first heard the high and lonesome vocals of the great Hank Williams at his grandparent’s house where Hank, Elvis and Johnny Cash were daily favorites. But he didn’t get to know the man until many years later when he was offered the chance to play Williams in Lanie Robertson’s one-man play “Nobody Lonesome For Me” a 2011 production at Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
“That show triggered all these subconscious memories took me back to some special places,” Brumlow recalls. “I remembered my grandmother singing some of his songs to me. So I immediately had this connection to the music.”
So it was a natural fit when Brumlow’s Chicago home, American Blues Theater, decided to stage Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Where the one-man show was a monologue by Williams set on the final night of his life, “Lost Highway” fleshes out the story from his humble beginnings in Alabama and discovery of music to fame by the age of 25 and self-destruction and death at 29.
“You need an extraordinary singer, actor and guitar player for this role, and Matt does all three,” says the show’s director Damon Kiely. “But, more importantly, he has all the qualities Hank had — a belief in the truth, a desire to connect with people, a great charm, quick temper, great strength and the ability to truthfully channel pain.”
Also in the 10-person cast are Michael Mahler, Greg Hirte, Austin Cook and John Foley who act, sing and play instruments as the Drifting Cowboys. Laura Coover is Williams wife, Audrey. Rounding out the cast are John Crowley, Jim Leaming, Dana Black and Suzi Petri.
Williams is regarded as the father of contemporary country music. He recorded 35 singles that placed in the Top 10 of the Billboard country charts, including 11 ranked at number one. He obviously drew from fellow artists like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. And, of course, he mastered the great Jimmie Rodgers yodel. As a youngster Williams had a hardscrabble life, and it was the guitar lessons from a street performer, Rufus Payne, that helped inject threads of the blues into his later work, says Brumlow.
“Poor is poor and he connected with that music and it stayed with him and he was really probably the first country artist to fully interject blues into his music and make it his own thing,” Brumlow notes. “To him, the blues was real and that reality connected him to his fans.”
“Lost Highway” also goes a long way to explain the origins of Williams’ addictions. He certainly had personal demons but also suffered from horrible back pain due to spinal bifida that was not diagnosed. “I think a lot of the drugs and alcohol began with the back pain,” Brumlow says. “In a lot of ways, music was his only salvation.”
Brumlow says if he simply tried to imitate Williams, he would “fall flat on my face.” Instead, his goal is to catch “the essence of Hank.” The songs help. “Honky Tonk Blues” is “quintessential Hank and has an edge to it that I don’t think other country music had at the time.” And then there’s the heartbreaking classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
“That song is so profound in its simplicity, and it has this amazing imagery in it that I think only a really keen eye and mind would pick up on,” Brumlow says. “He really was an amazing lyricist and a great rural American poet.”
Adds Kiely: “Hank spoke simple truths about heartache, love and humanity. The songs don’t get old. They stay relevant and speak straight to your heart.”
Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times free-lance writer.