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Here's to Hank Williams

WANT TO GO?

11th-annual Hank Williams tribute concert

Sponsored by FOOTMAD

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Culture Center Theater

COST: Adults $20, seniors $15, students $10, children under 13 free

INFO: 304-415-3668 or www.footmad.org

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Lilly doesn't get tired of Hank Williams. For the past 11 years, Lilly, singer/songwriter Rob McNurlin and a collection of others have performed an annual tribute to the music of the man.

On Saturday night, the show returns for the second year in a row to the Culture Center Theater.

"It's the same cast of characters," Lilly said. "We've brought in Dan Kelly this year. He's a top-notch fiddler in Nashville and plays with Clint Black, among others."

Lilly said they're glad to have him. The annual show is important to Lilly, who said he's been an informal scholar of Hank Williams for the better part of 30 years.

"I was a fan of Hank Williams since I was a little kid," Lilly said, "but I wasn't really aware of all the legends and lore around him until I took a job at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I met people. I heard stories."

Lilly said he couldn't count the number of times he'd been told "the real story" behind the American music legend's death, including his last ride, which began in Knoxville, Tenn., and was supposed to end in Canton, Ohio.

"Everyone remembers he was supposed to play Ohio on New Year's Day," Lilly said. "People forget that he was scheduled to appear in Charleston on New Year's Eve, but his flight got turned around and he couldn't make it."

Instead, he wound up trying to make the drive in the middle of the night, only to be found dead near Oak Hill, W.Va., on Jan. 1, 1953.

Williams's last night has taken on mythic qualities, Lilly said. Some of the legends of that drive describe a more complicated route than the one Williams took, with a variety of stops and little adventures before the singer eventually, quietly died in his sleep.

The legends are interesting, Lilly acknowledged, but it's not why people keep discovering his music.

"I think there are two reasons, really," he said. "The first is his records. There was so much sincerity in his voice, and the records are really crisp and uncluttered. Hank was really the apex of that era of country music and kind of leading up to what country music became."

The second reason, Lilly said, is his songwriting, which, he added, is really what Hank Williams was truly successful at -- more so than his singing.

"If you're looking for a good song, you really don't need to look any further than Hank."

It's not just that the lyrics are so strong; the songs are malleable. Melodies can be turned around and changed and freshened up without a lot of effort.

Lilly said his and McNurlin's show, sponsored by FOOTMAD, tries to honor the memory of Williams, the lore and the love of his catalog.

"It would be easy to take last year's set list and just slide into it," he said. "but we don't. It's never the same show every year."

The format of the show is the same, though. The first half of the program is dedicated to what Lilly calls "the hits."

 "These are the songs anybody with a passing familiarity of Hank Williams's music will know," he said. "It's for the casual fans."

These would be songs like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I Saw the Light," "Jambalaya" and "Hey, Good Lookin'."

The second half is for the deeper fans.

He said, "That's where we bring out 'Log Train,' 'Moanin' the Blues' or 'Angel of Death.' We play the Luke the Drifter stuff."

Luke the Drifter was an alias Williams used for some of his material that was outside his usual style of country music. The alias was supposed to distance Williams and his well-known hits from these off-brand recordings, but Williams barely bothered to keep Luke a secret and performed the songs live.

The second half of the show isn't just the more obscure parts of the Hank Williams catalog, though; it also features some updated takes on some of his better-known songs.

"We try to throw some different arrangements at people," Lilly said. "It's fun to give people a few surprises, even if they're fans."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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