Labor of love: Manchester singer keeps Hank’s voice alive with acclaimed show
“I have a special place in my heart for the that role and for Hank Williams. I want to be good to it because it has been so good to me.” – Jason Petty
By John Cofflet, Staff Writer
Country music entertainer Jason Petty, star of the hit musical narrative “HANK and My Honky Tonk Heroes,” will open his show this weekend at the Manchester Arts Center.
The show weaves Hank Williams’ music and the works that inspired Hanks’ own into a narrative.
“We’re going to have to go back in time 80 years, but we’re going to take you there,” Petty said.
“It’s much like an Elvis Presley story. The only music lesson that Hank ever had at the foot of a black blues street musician.”
The story goes from those humble beginnings to today and the influence that Hank still has.
Petty has portrayed Hank in various productions from the “Lost Higway” at the Ryman to shows in Canada and Europe.
“[Lost Highway] is where it all started. I’d worked shows at Opryland Theme Park before that but that’s when it really started.”
Petty that his first task once he was cast for “Lost Highway,” was to absorb as much Hank knowledge as possible.
“They took me down to the archives, showed me all of Hank’s old stuff.”
Country legends Marty Stewart and Harold Bradley granted Perry access their collections of Hank’s possessions.
“I met all the old, great Grand Ole Opry stars, who have since passed, that played with Hank,” Petty recalls.
“I met all these guys talked to them about Hank – what he was like. And all these music historians [who point out] his effect on country music.”
Petty says modestly that Hank is one of the greatest influences on country music, specifically song structure and content.
Before Hank, Petty explains, country was a folksy, gospel blend that had little to do with the common man, but Hank changed all that by making music that tells life of the common man with all his inglorious troubles and weaknesses.
Hank sang the life he lived, a dangerous, lost highway of drinking and carousing on the way to the top.
“He’s the guy who built the foundation, Petty says. Country music up until Hank was called hillbilly.
“It was a mixture of folk music and blues [with a touch of] Scotch-Irish mountain music and Gospel music – that Carter Family-type music. And then there was Ernest Tubb and his Texas-western music.”
Petty explained that Hank took all of those elements and changed them into a “true-to-life” way of songwriting.
“He lived everything he wrote. His biography is in the songs.
“That started with Hank… and [those elements] appealed to people. They were hearing that. They were hearing old folk tales and religious songs.
“ ‘Hey, Good Lookin’ is just about wanting to go out and have a few drinks and dance with a pretty girl. Or ‘Hotrod Ford and a Two Dollar Bill,’ saying hey, let’s go.
They’re real songs about real life.
“Hank’s faults showed up in song. Things like his drinking, marital problems were all in his music, and that just resonated with listeners.”
Without the vice, it’s a road that Petty has sought to capture.
“Instead of writing a book, I wrote the show. It’s a chronicle of Hank Williams’ music.”
The show goes beyond music to explain what Hank was going through when he wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Hey, Good lookin’,” says Petty.
“I put those stories in with the songs, and people loved it. We’ve done it in the U.S., Canada and Europe since 2003. We ended the season in New York City.”
The work has earned Petty critical acclaim.
“I was lucky enough to be nominated for five off-Broadway acting awards,” Petty said.
He won the 2003 Obie Award, the equivalent of the Tony Award, for Outstanding Performance in “Lost Highway.”
“All this from a guy who was born and raised in Manchester.”
Petty is excited to be returning home for the upcoming show.
“What I love is seeing people’s faces that I haven’t seen in a long time. We played South Jackson Civic Center a few years back. My sixth-grade teacher was sitting out there in the front row with a smiling face.
“I think it’s great coming back to perform for them. People know that you’ve gone to New York and lived in LA – done all these big and wild things – and still are the same guy you were.”
Petty lives in the New Union community. He moved back to be with nearby family.
“HANK and My Honky Tonk Heroes” will be at the MAC, 128 East Main St., at 7:30 p.m. on July 11-13 with matinees at 2 p.m. on July 13,14.
Tickets are available in advance by calling (931) 570-4489 or at http://www.millenniumrep.org/