Hank Williams Tribute – Lisner Auditorium (Washington, DC)
When Steve Earle shows up at a guitar pull wearing a freshly pressed shirt and looking downright respectable, you know something unusual is going on. But there he was, hair neatly combed, headlining the concert portion of a two-day tribute to Hank Williams organized by the Smithsonian and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The show, held at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, had its share of alt.country star power: Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey joined Earle onstage, as did the more mainstream country singer Kathy Mattea, whose presence at a tribute to the hard-living honky-tonk progenitor seemed a bit incongruous.
Earle was downright grumpy when he took the stage; the other performers spent part of the evening trying to get him in a good mood. His demeanor nonetheless seemed appropriate as he launched into a rendition of Williams’ “Mansion On The Hill”, which he called a “hillbilly, bad-attitude version of Romeo & Juliet.” Earle’s voice was as rough and piercing as ever, but there were also hints of a keening, high lonesome sound, perhaps a vocal remnant of his recent bluegrass collaboration with Del McCoury.
Lucinda got the crowd going with a raw, blues-inflected version of Hank’s “Take These Chains From My Heart” — a song that, in retrospect, seems custom-made for her ability to mix sincere longing with pained Southern twang. Toward the end of the set, after knocking out respectable but somewhat subdued versions of her own “Concrete And Barbed Wire” and “Jackson”, she again revved up the crowd with “Jambalaya”, a Hank classic she covered more than twenty years ago on her Folkways debut disc Ramblin’.
Like Earle, Williams seemed uncomfortable, as if she’d rather be performing in a smoky bar than a pristine college auditorium. Maybe the fact that the event was organized by the Smithsonian had something to do with the stiff atmosphere. By its very nature, a guitar pull is supposed to be laid-back, lazy and spontaneous, like those great Austin City Limits shows with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, or last year’s tribute to Townes Van Zandt.
But this concert’s rigid structure — performers all sang two Hank covers and two of their own most “Hank-esque” songs — seemed to stifle any laid-back urges the performers may have had. Earle seemed to bristle under such restrictions, though that again served him well when he did a flat-out ornery cover of “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” near the end of the show. It was a perfect boot-stomping, rant-‘n’-rave Earle performance; had he kicked off the show with that number, it might have kick-started the whole group.
Mattea, meanwhile, had a hard time finding songs from her own repertoire that fit the occasion. “All of my stuff sounds so ‘Kumbayah’ next to Hank Williams,” she confessed, no doubt echoing the sentiments of more than a few audience members. But although Mattea represents the more commercial side of Nashville, it’s hard not to like her. She cracked up the crowd with her jabs at Earle, with whom she shares a long history (they signed their first record deals on the same day).
But it was Richey who stole the show. In truth, Richey is closer to Mattea’s musical sensibilities, having written songs for Trisha Yearwood and other Nashville country-pop acts. Yet she won over the audience with a moving, molasses-paced version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Explaining her affection for the song, which leaves the listener with no hope that things will ever get better, she said, “All this uptempo stuff just pisses me off when I’m in a bad mood.”
Uptempo is definitely not the word to describe “Home”, an unreleased Richey original that maintained the same funereal pace as the Williams tune. It’s an achingly beautiful pseudo-gospel song (“I will find my way to the river/Where the water is pure and warm/I will find my faith at the river/I’m coming home”) that deserves a spot on her next album.
The concert ended with all the performers joining in for “Move It On Over” and, for the encore, a paint-by-numbers reading of “I Saw The Light”. Despite the constrained atmosphere, apparently the audience did indeed see the light. The next day, I visited a Tower Records store a couple of blocks from where the concert was held. All the Hank Williams CDs were gone, and the Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey bins each had a single album left. Not bad for an overly polite tribute concert.