What they do is focus on an isolated incident or a moment in time using the familiar elements of a narrative, such as character, plot, theme, place, to create a snapshot which leads us to read between the lines and create the bigger picture for ourselves.
The Night Hank Williams Came To Town, written in 1987 by Bobby Braddock and Charlie Williams and memorably recorded by Johnny Cash, is an evocative description of Hank Williams’ visit to a small town in the US to perform at a concert in 1951.
The story unfolds in seven verses, each verse consisting of two rhyming couplets, and the last line of every verse is a variation on “The night Hank Williams came to town.”
The structure and the repetition have the effect of carrying you along and drawing you in. You feel you were there. You wish you’d been there.
Oh, what a night
From the beginning, we know the narrator is a man looking back at this significant night.
He gives us the time context: Harry Truman was president (term served 1945-1953) and he tells us how much a coke and burger would set you back. Instant nostalgia.
Then he goes straight into the personal: “I was still in love with Mavis Brown.” The use of the word “still” implies a story and creates distance. He is looking back at his younger self, and he remembers Mavis just as he remembers Hank. What went on between him and Mavis? How did it end? Something happened.
There’s a great feeling of small town, communal family life. It’s the first night of I Love Lucy on television, a big event, the talk of the moment, which would keep the nation at home glued to their sets, but not in this town.
People for miles around are headed for the high-school gym where Hank will be playing. The narrator wears the shirt his mama ironed for him and borrows his daddy’s truck, and he and Mavis make the county line for a quick alcohol hit before joining the thousand-strong audience.
Then we’re there, in the gym, joining in with the deafening cheers and whistles we hear in the song as Hank comes on stage. He gives a great show, doing all the favourites and afterwards he makes himself available for photos and autographs.
Lost and profound
Mavis has her picture taken with Hank, next to his car. He’s so modest, she marvels, for such a great star. Mavis also gets acquainted with Hank’s backing band, the Drifting Cowboys. And suddenly, the story is over. The next line, the penultimate one, is “The effect on all our lives was quite profound.”
Something happened. Did Mavis take off with the band? Was this evening the kind of life-changing experience that made her long for more than a hometown sweetheart and a small-town life?
For how long did the narrator continue to be in love with Mavis? (Bobby Braddock, the song’s co-writer, knows about undying love – he penned that great anthem to a lifelong devotion, He Stopped Loving Her Today). What is the tone of that line – sad, rueful, philosophical?
Back to the future
But the song doesn’t end there. A voiceover takes us back to the excitement and anticipation of this visit as we hear the local radio announcing the sale of advance tickets, available from Renfrew’s Drugstore and Do-Not Heaven, or from the radio station itself.
We know that town, the drugstore, the local radio station, the pick-up trucks, the school gym. It’s familiar to us from countless books, films, TV programmes.
Equally familiar is its emotional landscape, the tension between the familiar and the longing for adventure, between the old-school values and the brave new world, between the ties of home and family and the dreams of leaving.
This short song has it all. We are in the territory of Diner, The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti. It’s the world of American Pie (the song, that is), eight years before the day the music died, and two years before the day Hank Williams died.
Mavis on the move
Mavis, it seems, came of age quite dramatically that night. Did she actually leave town with the band or did the experience spark some restlessness, mark the beginning of a change?
Perhaps she showed up in one of the other songs written by Billy Braddock or Charlie Williams. Maybe she’s the woman with the cheating man in Charlie’s The Greatest Actor – ‘”I believed you cared for me, that’s how well you played your part” – or the girl who sees her companion “wink for the waiter to slip me a double” in his A Girl Don’t Have To Drink To Have Fun.
We know it won’t have ended well. This is the universe of Hank Williams, a planet of loneliness, tears and heartbreak.