Hank Williams, Hillbilly Poet

Y’all, in the car yesterday, I came up with a million reasons why “Why Don’t You Love Me?” is a better song than just about any other Hank Williams songs you could name, but then I got busy and I’ve forgotten most of them.

But here’s the thing. You often hear this argument that Hank is some great poet. Not just a songwriter–which is one set of skills–but a poet–another set. And yet, I contend, if you listen to most of his music, you’re not going to hear anything that seems to switch medium from song to poetry. And don’t get me wrong, he’s an exquisite songwriter. This isn’t a knock on him. But if you’re going to say “Oh, George Clooney isn’t just a movie star. He’s creating book characters brought to life,” for instance, it creates a kind of expectation of not just excellence, but transcendence. You were in one thing–in this case, a song–and you found yourself also in this other thing–a poem.

In this century, I would happily argue, the only person we have who does that–and not as often as folks would claim–is Dylan. And he does it more by bending poetry to meet him over in music, rather than launching from music into poetry.

But this is it, folks. “Why Don’t You Love Me?” is the Hank Williams song where he’s got a hold of both live wires. It happens very briefly. But it repeats just in case you miss it the first time.

He sings “I’m the same old trouble you’ve always been through./ Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” You don’t even need the rest of the song. Hell, people, how you know you’re hearing something extraordinary is that, after those two lines, you could do a lot of 20th century sad songs. I mean, put those two lines, just those two, up against a classic of the genre–“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” Listen to them back-to-back and you start to hear how emotionally flat that classic is in comparison.

See, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” is a great song. But it’s not poetry. It’s really straightforward. She‘s changed. She needs to change back, because their love is so awesome.

But look at what Hank tells us, just in that one line–“I’m the same old trouble you’ve always been through.” What do we know about that couple? He’s kind of a pain in the ass. But he’s self-aware. They’ve had some difficulties based on his pain-in-the-assedness. But in the past those difficulties haven’t seemed insurmountable. And yet, in that line, you can immediately feel how they’ve become something she can’t get over anymore.

It’s that level of writing, where you, in so few words, can sympathize with both parties–since, from his perspective, he’s still the guy she fell in love with and he hasn’t changed, so he’s incredibly confused and from her perspective, he’s still the guy doing the same old shit and not changing and she just can’t do it anymore–that is poetry. And so, when he asks the question, it’s almost unbearable, since the answer has preceded it. She can’t love him like she used to do precisely because he is the same old trouble she’s always been through. Over and over again.

This is one of the most extraordinary moments in popular music in the 20th century. It is a moment that should, at least, put this song near the top of everyone’s “Greatest Country Songs” list. And some motherfucker should cover it.

And yet, unless you’re a big country fan, I bet you’ve never heard it. That’s how you know there is no justice in this world.

One thought on “Hank Williams, Hillbilly Poet

  1. I really love that song. A poet/songwriter who doesn’t really get his due is David Berman of The Silver Jews. He can be difficult to get into for reasons similar to Dylan (he’s not a very talented singer), but well worth it. Do yourself a favor and listen to the album American Water.

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