Hank, Don’t Fail Me Now
An Oklahoma musician takes his tribute to a late, great legend on the road.
In March 2009, Muskogee-based performer Jim Paul Blair and his band appeared in Durant with their first official presentation of Hankerin’ 4 Hank, a Hank Williams Sr. tribute show. Blair’s association with that country music titan, however, goes back much further. In fact, the connection was established – and broken – well before he was born.
“My mom was on the Grand Ole Opry when Hank made his debut,” explains Blair. “She was there all of that summer of ‘49, and then into most of ‘50, and she’d become friends with Audrey.”
Audrey was Hank’s wife, and “colorful” might be one of the milder adjectives to apply to her personality. As her husband’s star rose, Audrey got the idea that she had the potential to be a recording star as well, and, indeed, she ended up getting a deal with Decca Records – which ultimately led to the dissolution of her friendship with Blair’s mother, vocalist Ramona Reed, who was then performing on the Opry as Martha White.
“Audrey recorded (Hank’s composition) ‘Honky Tonkin,’ and one night on the Opry my mom sang ‘Honky Tonkin,’ doing it in a more contemporary, different style,” Blair says. “Audrey got all mad and upset. They kind of had a little catfight, and Mom got called in by (Opry co-manager) Jack Stapp, who told her not to do that anymore. That’s when she left the Opry and went to Dallas to work for Bob Wills on the Big D Jamboree. So it’s because of Hank that she left Nashville.”
Like the Grand Ole Opry, the Big D Jamboree was a popular stage show broadcast over a powerful local radio station. Throughout most of the ‘30s and into the early ‘40s, Bob Wills had enjoyed the same sort of arrangement at Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom, with clear channel giant KVOO transmitting his live Western swing – an amalgam of jazz, pop, hillbilly, blues and fiddle music – to much of the western half of the country. In 1950, however, Bob’s brother Johnnie Lee Wills was holding forth at the Cain’s, and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys band had found a new home, at least temporarily, in Texas.
Ramona Reed found her own new home with Bob Wills’ band, becoming one of his Texas Playgirls in an association that would go on for years, even after Reed moved with her son from Texas back to Oklahoma, settling in Clinton.
“I grew up around Bob Wills music,” Blair says, “but the first song I ever remember taking a liking to, when I was three or four years old, was (Hank Williams’) ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.”
As a student at Oklahoma State University, Blair unsurprisingly pursued music, doing some playing with fellow student Garth Brooks, among others. Throughout most of the ‘90s, he worked as a singer and musician in Nashville. Then, like his mother, he returned to the Sooner State, where he continued to perform.
As he remembers it, the first time he assumed the persona of Hank Williams was during a New Year’s Eve 2002 show with his band, City Moon, at Ernie’s Country Palace in Yukon.
“I grabbed a jacket and a hat, turned on a fog machine, and we did about three Hank tunes,” he recalls. “It was just kind of our own little tribute. We’d been thinking about it for a couple of weeks, because that night was the 50th anniversary of his death.
“Actually,” he adds, “no one actually knows when he died. It could’ve been New Year’s Eve ’52 or New Year’s morning ‘53. But he was pronounced dead at six that morning.”
Following that special acknowledgement of Williams’ passing, the Hank persona lay dormant in Blair for several years, although he was intrigued by a musical play, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, that had begun at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in the late ‘90s and had since been staged in theaters all over the country. He knew that the Muskogee Little Theatre was interested in its own production, but had concerns about casting it.
Then one evening in March 2008, Blair walked into a casino and watched an Elvis tribute concert.
“I don’t know if this should be off the record,” he says, laughing, “but when I found out they were paying $23,000 for that show, it dawned on me that I ought to just go at this full-bore. That’s when I got serious about it.”
Seeing a Hank show as a potentially powerful blend of art and commerce, Blair contacted Muskogee Little Theatre and offered to deliver a cast, including himself. They took him up on the proposition, bringing in well-known regional director Nick Sweet to helm the production.
“It was great,” remembers Blair, “because Nick turned me loose. He said, ‘You know what? You’re channeling Hank, and I’m just going to let you go.’
“I had zero acting experience, but I actually won Actor of the Year from the Muskogee Little Theatre. They call the awards the Milties. I got a Miltie. I was shocked.”
The Muskogee version of Lost Highway ran for eight sold-out performances in August 2009, with Blair joined by his band’s fiddler, Dana Hazzard. Hazzard is also a part of the City Moon group, which – with the addition of announcer Steve Cannon – becomes Williams’ band, the Drifting Cowboys, for the Hankerin’ 4 Hank engagements.
“We want you to feel like you’re in 1951 or ’52,” says Blair. “We’ve got the announcer, and we want the microphone to look real. I play a 1951 D-18 (Martin guitar). Hank’s D-18 is hanging in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Hank played a 1944 D-28 on a lot of shows; I’ll sometimes use a ’54 D-28, I have a ’54 because Elvis had one, and I can’t afford a ’44.
“But we use the old standup steel guitar. We try to use vintage-looking instruments and vintage-looking amps. We don’t like monitors in front of us. If we’re doing the sound, we make it look clean up front, just like you would’ve seen back then.”
The authenticity extends to Blair’s performing suits, which were created by the famed Nashville tailor Manuel in the style pioneered by his father-in-law, Nudie. Hank Williams and many other country stars of his time proudly wore Nudie creations.
Hank was a year shy of 30 when he died. Blair is considerably older, but, as he says with another laugh, “Hank was 29, and I’m 49, but the thing I’ve got going for me is that he looked 49.”
In addition to Blair and Hazzard, the band includes Virgil Bonham on lead guitar, Mickey Flatt on steel guitar, Cliff Parrett on bass and Cory Wyatt on drums. And while they’ve been performing the Hankerin’ 4 Hank shows for fewer than two years, they’ve already had scores of engagements, including a tour in late ’10 that took them through Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and New Hampshire.
At this writing, Hankerin’ 4 Hank performances are set for the Woodward Arts Center on Feb. 19. The band recently played a gig at Oklahoma City Community College to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Hank’s first appearance in OKC.
There will, of course, be others. And each time, Blair says, he’ll do what he’s done from the beginning – just before taking the stage, he’ll stop for a moment and utter a simple phrase that may sound a little like a prayer:
“Hank,” he’ll say, “don’t fail me now.”
For more information on Hankerin’ 4 Hank, visit www.hankerin4hank.com