Funny how in life sometimes the highest good comes from the lowest of places.
For me the inspiration that launched a lifelong fascination with writing songs came from one of the worst bio-pics to ever make its way to the movie theater in my hometown of Franklin. My only excuse for not knowing how bad it was is that I when I first saw it, I was only 12.
The year was 1964 when MGM released Your Cheatin’ Heart, with George Hamilton playing Hank Williams. I saw it with my mother, Frances Cooper Collins, who, despite not being a musician herself, carried the musical gene that infected me to the core of my being.
To Frances, there has never been a country music singer/songwriter she loved half as much as she loved Hank Williams. Today, going on 65 years since Hank passed away, the same could be said for me.
Thankfully, discernment, in this case, didn’t come until many years had passed. For it was only after watching the movie as an adult did I realize had ridiculously bad it actually was.
Colin Escott, who wrote the definitive Hank Williams: The Biography had one word for Your Cheatin’ Heart, and that word was execrable.
Just to be sure I went back and watched it again today. I’m here to testify under any oath anyone might want me to take that Escott was right.
The first tipoff for why it was such a piece of horse dung could be seen in the opening credits, which listed as a “technical adviser’’ none other than Audrey Williams, A.K.A. Mrs. Hank Williams.
Problem one, she wasn’t Mrs. Hank Williams when Hank passed away on or around the date of Jan. 1, 1953. She and Hank had divorced for the second time after one of the most notoriously rocky marriages Nashville has ever known – which for such a Sodom and Gomorroh as Nashville is really saying something. Furthermore, Hank, by the time he died, had already taken up with and married a sweet young thing named Billie Jean Jones.
Let the record show that Hank actually married Billie Jean twice, once before a justice of the peace in Minden, Louisiana and again, for the price of admission, on stage before an audience in New Orleans.
So problem two, the big problem, was that the movie was seen through the heavily distorted prism of Audrey, known not-so-affectionately around Nashville as “Big A.’’ Hence there was nothing in the movie dealing with the extramarital affairs, nothing about the nasty drug choral hydrate fed to Hank by a quack doctor named Toby Marshall – which along with the alcohol is what probably killed him – and certainly nothing about anyone named or remotely resembling Billie Jean Jones.
In hindsight, the movie was a fraud propagated on tender, highly impressionable young mind of one 12-year-old Country Dan Collins. And to this day, I’m so glad it was.
For there was one scene in the movie that provided the inspiration I have carried with me ever since, the inspiration to start writing songs of my own.
The scene came early, right after Hank met Audrey and joined up with the Drifting Cowboys. The band is crammed shoulder to shoulder in a 1950s model convertible cruising down the road when Hank, sitting in the back, starts riffing a verse about sitting around waiting.
“I’ve never heard that before,’’ said Shorty from the front.
“It would be kind of spooky if you did,’’ Hank replied, pushing his cowboy hat back on his head. “It just came to me.’’
Talk about your epiphanies.
Until that magical moment, pretty much all I knew about music was how much I loved it and how complete and wonderful it made me feel. I had never really thought about where it came from. I had to know, subconsciously, that there were people who actually wrote the songs, but until Your Cheatin’ Heart came to town, I would have associated the fine art of songwriting with alchemy.
Profoundly inspired, I picked up the guitar my older brother Tom put down and began learning how to play. And I learned for one reason, and one reason only.
I was going to write songs. I had to write songs. I was destined to write songs.
And fifty-some years later I’m still writing songs. I tell people I’ve been writing songs longer than I’ve been writing sports, and I’ve been writing sports forever.
The story of Hank Williams, I’m convinced, is the great bio-pic yet to be made. Hollywood took another crack at it in 2016 starring Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light, which, to my mind, was a little more honest in its portrayal.
But how good can a movie be with a guy from England playing Hank Williams?
Maybe just good enough to inspire some other 12-year-old as profoundly as the execrable Your Cheatin’ Heart inspired me.