HANK WILLIAMS’ MESSAGE can be encapsulated in propositions expressed in three of Hank’s song titles.
First, “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul.” Money is no measure of a person’s value. The underlying affirmation of the equal dignity of all persons regardless of social class forms the basis of a tradition of social criticism from the perspective of the white working class. Randy Travis rejects the pretensions of upward mobility in favor of “A Better Class of Losers.” Alan Jackson bemoans the effects of the global economy on small-town community in “The Little Man.” Even Garth Brooks recognizes that one needs “Friends in Low Places.”
Second, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” Life is disconcertingly difficult and unfair. The affirmation of basic human dignity stands in tension with the lived experience of marginalization. The fate that dooms romantic relationships in Hank Williams’ songs reflects a general sense that the powers determining life’s direction are capricious and beyond control. Travis Tritt, in “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man,” asks “why the rich man does the dancing while the poor man pays the band.” Mark Chesnutt complains, “Every time I make my mark, somebody paints the wall.”
Third, “Your Cheatin’ Heart Will Tell On You.” Actions have consequences. Despite the fact that humans are “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7), we are responsible for our choices. Responding to life’s troubles by seeking escape in booze and sex only brings more trouble. One ends up, like George Jones, “still doing time in a honky-tonk prison.”
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DAVID FILLINGIM teaches ethics and biblical studies at Chowan College in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, and is the author of Redneck Liberation: Country Music As Theology.