John Lilly: The Hank Williams Tribute Performance, Charleston, West Virginia, January 9, 2010
(Ritchie Collins, Donnie Scott, Rob McNurlin, Jeff Ware, John Lilly, Buddy Griffin)
On on the coldest and most snow-filled night of this winter — a night perhaps not unlike New Year’s eve in 1952 — a more than sold out audience — stated capacity is 250 but it seemed to me it was closer to 400 – turned out to see and hear John Lilly’s annual Hank Williams Tribute concert at the Walker Theater at the Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia. John began the tribute show on the 50th anniversary of Hank’s death, December 31, 2002.
The Walker Theater is the “intimate” performance space of the city’s new arts center, The Clay Center. And it was more than it’s usual intimate self as people were squeezed everywhere to see and hear what has become a regional hit. To get a perspective on it’s size, it’s a bit larger than the well-known Cat’s Cradle in Carborro, North Carolina, but much more inviting and not nearly as bleak. And as I attend many music performances in the area, it was obvious that there were more than the usual suspects there that night, many more. My informal survey indicated there were people from at least six states and many unknown faces.
(John Lilly, Buddy Griffin)
John Lilly may not be a nationally known brand name, but since moving to West Virginia in 1992 to accept a position with the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, then in 1997, becoming editor of Goldenseal, the state cultural history magazine, he has become a prolific performer in the area – and nationwide. He is not a late convert to Hank Williams as he admired and played his music growing up. And one of his first articles for Goldenseal was a piece on Williams’ performances that were scheduled for the night, and the day after, he died. (A link to that article is below.)
While it is well-known that Williams’ death was discovered during a service station stop in Oak Hill, West Virginia, it is perhaps less well-known that he was scheduled to headline two New Year’s eve shows in Charleston. Wait a minute, can you imagine seeing Hank Williams on New Year’s eve? Just think about that for a minute.
While the Canton, Ohio show on the afternoon of January 1 was expected to happen, it remains a mystery on the circumstances surrounding the cancelled Charleston shows. While several books on Williams state that the West Virginia shows were cancelled days in advance due to Hank’s illness, Lilly’s research reveals that the horrible weather was what prevented Hank from arriving on time and, thus, performing. Lilly’s discussions with the promoter of both the Canton and West Virginia shows lends authoritative credence to this version.
It should also be noted that all those shows were arranged at the persistence of Hank’s manger to whom Hank owed a fair amount of money. It was well-known that Hank had health problems, including addictive drugs supplied by his quack doctor. Despite these health issues, Hank’s manager kept the pressure on for the sole reason of getting money he was owed. No matter what the reasons for the cancellation of the Charleston shows, the manger was waiting for Hank in Canton so he could get all he was owed, which was likely the entire appearance fee.
Meanwhile, back to the show: Lilly’s partners in crime that evening was vocalist & guitarist Rob McNurlin from Ashland, Kentucky who has also been a Williams fanatic for years and becoming the most well-known music regular in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. He too has several albums of original material and is now living in and working out of Nashville. Luminous support came from lead electric guitarist Ritchie Collins (who is also the sound guy for Mt. Stage) and the finest fiddler you have likely never heard of, Buddy Griffin from my home county of Braxton, now living in the next county over, Gilmer, where he is the head of the Bluegrass Music Program at Glenville State College. Griffin performed for many years in Branson, Missouri where he worked with country music stars Johnny Russell and Tom Brumley. He later became the fiddler for Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys, and toured with them, including performing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry for better than 10 years. He has appeared on more than 100 albums. Donnie Scott from North Carolina was on dobro and Jeff Ware also from Ashland on upright bass. Besides Ritchie’s electric guitar, the instrumentation was as authentic as you can get. Please note — there were no drums.
While I love tribute performances and the many tribute albums of the past decade, tributes are a tricky affair. Too often performers – especially younger ones – think that it is enough to simply like the music or hear a version they like and imitate it. Or, just as worse, somehow think they can “improve” on the original by rocking it up, bleeding it dry or making an alt version of it. Fortunately, John Lilly, Rob McNurlin and the rest of the gang have been doing this for way too long for any such affectations.
They played most of the well known songs, some lesser ones and John’s original “Blue Highway” that in 2005 won the national Ghost Writers In the Sky songwriting contest, sponsored by HankFest, a Chicago-based festival honoring the music of Hank Williams. He was also a finalist in the 2002 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest. He’ll be spending much of the spring on tour, check out his website for more information on John, his four albums, bio, touring, etc. (www.johnlillymusic.com www.myspace.com/johnlillymusic and www.sonicbids.com/johnlilly)
And in case you have been under a rock this past year, two 3 CD sets from Hank’s live 1951 radio show for the Mother’s Finest Flour Company have been released in the past 15 months. While these recordings are just some of what has been available privately (I am one of the fortunate few to have them all), and as good as the studio recordings are, these live sets more accurately represent what Hank actually sounded like live. And is a rare glimpse into the man himself when he lets little things slip. Get them.
Coincidentally, John first performed his Tribute show on the 50th anniversary of Hank’s death, December 31, 2002, the same night I was attending the acclaimed off-Broadway play “Lost Highway” that was based on Hank’s life. That night the show ran late on purpose, the cast hung around singing more songs and at midnight champagne was passed all around. We a had communal toast to Hank at midnight.
I too have been a long-time fan as I grew up listening to his music on country radio totally unaware he was dead. Hank’s music was played on the radio long after he died, he was always referred to in the present tense — he was that revered and had such a huge presence. He was Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday and the Beatles all rolled into one. You see, my parents were among the many disappointed when he cancelled. (Unfortunately, neither can recall exactly when the shows were cancelled.) Then, devastated to wake the next morning to hear that he was dead. And unlike Norma Desmond, Hank’s music never became small.