Hank Williams, Lost Highway, Chicago, Theatre, Theater, Filament Theatre Ensemble

Hank and his Tutor

In today’s blog post we examine the relationship between Hank Williams and his mentor Rufus Payne, known as Tee-Tot. Hank’s problems with his back (which we will explore in Hank’s upcoming blog entry) kept him from the normal jobs that a young man living rural America in the 1940’s would have done. Since he was unable to perform labor jobs, Hank turned instead to music, and an African American street singer known as Tee-Tot is credited with teaching Hank to sing the “hard time Southern blues.”

Hank Williams, Lost Highway, Chicago, Theatre, Theater, Filament Theatre EnsembleAs we peruse the many versions of Hank Williams’ story left behind in interviews, biographies, educated guesswork and a few tall tales, we’re amused to find how many people from his childhood have taken credit for giving Hank his first guitar. It’s not hard to imagine why so many versions of this story are in circulation: providing Hank with the conduit for his immortal music is like playing God in a country music creation myth. We don’t know how Hank got that first guitar, but we do know where he learned how to play it. The story of Hank and his tutor, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, is really also a story of how country music came to be.

In the late 1930s in the small town of Greenville, Alabama, a preteen Hank Williams was living in his mother’s boarding house and slacking off at school. For any number of reasons, he couldn’t stay still: even as a youth, Hank was a drinker, probably to numb the pain of the spina bifida he’d been born with that must have made it torture to sit in a classroom.Hank Williams Lost Highway, Theatre, Theater, Chicago, Filament Theatre Ensemble Many of the standard boy’s pastimes—the sports, the roughhousing—weren’t really an option for a kid with a bad back; many have speculated that this is one of the reasons Hank turned to music.

The South in the Great Depression was saturated with music of all kinds. The record companies split up the era’s sounds along racial and thematic lines: “race music,” or Black blues, jazz, and honky-tonk; “hillbilly” or “folk” music, sung by rural white laborers; and the newly emerging “country” sound, which was a genre manufactured for movie stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. On the ground, though, “race” vs. “hillbilly” music was a much more difficult distinction to make. The blues arose through decades of Black slavery and poverty, while many folk songs had ancient European roots and had been preserved in white hill communities—but music is perpetually evolving, and there was a great deal of cross-pollination across regions and races. Poverty tends to equalize in certain ways, and especially during the Depression poor people shared campfires and shanty towns and bars, and they absorbed one another’s musical styles.

Not much is known about Tee-Tot, historically.  It’s said that his nickname is a reference to “teetotaler,” and that he always carried with him a mixture of alcohol and tea.  His mother, father, and birth date are not listed on his death certificate, and his death is simply listed as “unknown.”  But his musical legacy speaks for itself: Hank was always open in crediting Tee-Tot with teaching him music, even in that time of racial divide.

The dramaturg of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Kati Sweaney, created a playlist of music similar to what Hank would have listened to when he was growing up.  For more musical context, you can find that playlist here.

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Gerald Richardson, Theatre, Theater, Chicago, Hank Williams, Country, Music, Filament Theatre EnsembleAnd now, ladies and gentlemen, we’d like you to meet Gerald Richardson, who plays Tee-Tot in Hank Williams: Lost Highway.  Gerald blows the roof off on stage with his powerful voice, and is a joy off stage as well. 

What are you most excited about for this production?
Gerald: Putting all the pieces together and watching it grow.

What made you want to be part of this production?
Gerald: I loved the story, and being a southerner I grew up hearing this music throughout my childhood, so that is exciting.

If you could see any musician perform, living or dead, who would it be?
Gerald: Elvis Presley

Are you similar to Tee-Tot?
Gerald: Yes.  I love the blues and was raised in a southern baptist church.  Gospel and blues were always being sung when I was young!

One of Hank’s biggest struggles was the idea of “success” – he made it to the top, but found that once he was there he was still lonely and unhappy.  How do you define success for yourself?
Gerald: Success is being confident and happy in whatever you do.

Montgomery’s Largest Crowd

In today’s blog entry we examine Hank’s fans and look into what is was about Mr. Williams that had the country so enthralled, even now. Then we introduce you to Bryce Gangel, who plays  “The Waitress” in Hank Williams: Lost Highway.  The Waitress, who spends her days working in a truck stop diner listening to the radio, very much represents the every man/woman to whom Hank Williams meant so much.

Montgomery, Alabama has seen its fair share of history. As the state’s capitol, it’s been the site of Civil War battles, huge civil rights demonstrations, and many a state funeral. And yet to this day it’s said that the crowd of 25,000 people who gathered for Hank Williams’s funeral in 1953 was the largest Montgomery has ever seen.

Just what was it that gave Hank this enormous draw? Stick-thin in those shoulder-padded suits, Hank was polite in radio interviews and a notorious mess in his private life. He didn’t dance like Elvis or flirt like Sinatra, and yet something happened to people when he stepped on the stage. Even those who shared the spotlight with him couldn’t place just what the secret was. Jerry Rivers, fiddle player in the Drifting Cowboys, reminisced, “I could not then, nor can I yet understand the almost uncanny power Hank Williams held over his audience.” A fellow Opry headliner concurs: “The mystery of Hank Williams, I have never been able to figure it out. What was the magnetism that he had? …When he came on stage, it was over. People would come unglued.”

It may elude words, but his twenty-first century listeners understand that the deep pull of Hank’s presence still emanates from his recordings almost sixty years after his death. This disembodied Hank, a voice in a speaker, was likely the one Hank’s early fans first came to know. The radio was a relatively new medium, one which had risen to popularity during Hank’s lifetime. It granted people unprecedented access to music and information, even if they were illiterate or couldn’t leave the house. In fact, the sudden prevalence of radio 1920s is credited with making hillbilly music a mainstream genre. Tiny local radio stations began to appear all over the south, and when rural folk learned that they could record a song or two for air play they began to migrate into town in search of a little fame and money. Stations began to broadcast hour-long showcases where local talent played for live audiences; it was thus that shows like the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry were born.

The Grand Ole Opry broadcast was a major weekly event for country music fans. Neighbors who couldn’t afford the trip into Nashville to watch the live show would gather for what was essentially a tailgate party, hooking the radio up to a car battery and blasting Hank Williams and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl while they drank beer and barbecued.

Anyone lucky enough to see the Opry in person on a night when the Drifting Cowboys played was in for a truly life-changing experience. Until things really fell apart in 1952, Hank’s rampant alcoholism didn’t interfere with his clear, unbroken singing voice or the concentrated power of his onstage gaze. Many viewers have reported that no matter where in the house they sat, when Hank sang he seemed to be speaking right to them. Audiences screamed for encores, particularly of “Lovesick Blues,” and Hank usually fulfilled their wishes. He was unusually generous with his fans one-on-one, happily hanging around after a show to sign autographs and stand for pictures.

The simple candor of Hank’s mien and music made fans believe he understood them like no one else could, and they felt the need to tell him so. In an interview, Hank once stated, “When you get to be a success, folks have a habit of writing you and telling you their troubles. All kinds of troubles. If their husband dies and their left with eight starving kids, they write. If their sweetheart done them wrong, they write. If they feel sorta blue, the write. I dunno, I reckon they think I’m something like the Red Cross.”


Bryce Gangel, Filament Theatre Ensemble, Hank Williams, Lost Highway, folk, country, music, Chicago, theatre, theaterBryce Gangel plays The Waitress in our production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway. She acts as the narrator of Hank’s public life as he rose to prominence on the American musical stage. Bryce’s natural warmth and light make her an instantly relatable “everywoman” in the show – the lonesome dreamer looking for a better life. She is a graduate of Loyola College and a former Oklahoma resident.

What aspect of Hank’s story do you most identify with? Why?
Bryce: His struggle to stay true to himself and his roots. I think it can be hard to be innovative and as successful as he was and still be genuine.

Are you similar to the character you are playing?
Bryce: I think we are similar. She’s openly described as lonely, optimistic, cheerful. I think she’s a product of her environment, but a dreamer! I’m originally from Oklahoma and think I at one point felt that same need to “escape”.

If you could see any musician perform (living or dead) who would it be?
Bryce: Hands down – Bjork.  She’s a true artist and even if you can’t identify with all of her music immediately, you have to respect her creativity, passion, and freakiness.  I love her!

What are you most excited about for this production?
Bryce: I am most excited to incorporate a live band into the show.  I mean, hello!

What’s your favorite Hank Williams lyric?
Bryce: “Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire!”

Stay tuned for our next blog post, when we introduce the musical mentor who taught Hank to play the guitar, and first introduced him to the Southern Blues music that would become his legacy.

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Filament Theatre Ensemble, Chicago

Meet The Band

We continue our on-going blog series on the life and music of Hank Williams and our production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway. In this post we are excited to introduce you to the actors that make up Hank’s band, The Drifting Cowboys, in our production. Join us next time as we examine Hank’s fans and why he made such a splash when he arrived on the music scene of the 1940’s.

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Filament Theatre Ensemble, ChicagoSam Quinn plays Jimmy, the lead guitarist of the Drifting Cowboys.  Called “Burrhead” by Hank and the rest of the band, Jimmy is the most easily fed up with Hank’s bad behavior and mistreatment of his friends.  Sam, a top-notch gentleman and fantastic musician, is a Chicago transplant originally hailing from the mountains of northern New Mexico. Since moving to Chicago Sam has performed with several local theatre companies, including Redmoon, Collaboraction, and Trap Door Theatre. For the last year his focus has been centered around developing and workshopping his original rock musical, EYE iNSIDE: The Rock-N-Roll Allegory of Vance Barrett.

What aspect of Hank’s story do you most identify with?
Sam: Hank just wanted to be a good songwriter.  That’s just how I feel about every day.

What are you most excited about for this production?
Sam: I’m stoked to call myself a lead guitarist, and just as nervous.

If you could see any musician perform (living or dead), who would it be?
Sam: I’d see Jim Morrison in his prime.  He seems electrifying to me…  Tom Waits is a close second.  Waits always seems like the music is controlling him, and not the other way around.

What artist inspires your work?
Sam: John Cameron Mitchell, the songwriter and playwright of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  He proved that musical theatre could rock.

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Filament Theatre Ensemble, ChicagoJesse Woelfel plays Hoss, Hank’s bass player and most loyal friend.  Jesse fell out of bass-player heaven and into the cast, after performing as the bass player of Million Dollar Quartet for a number of years.  Growing up in Northeastern Wisconsin, he only heard music from the 1950′s and 60′s because his father never changed the radio station from the ‘Oldies’ channel. His Grandfather played a pivotal role in his life by introducing him to the music of Hank Williams. Currently, he plays with the bands The Black Willoughbys and Pearls Mahone and the One Eyed Jacks.

What are you the most excited about for this production?  The most nervous for?
Jesse:  I am excited about being in the show as a cast member, and being able to perform some of my favorite songs.  I’m most nervous about singing.

What made you want to be a part of telling this story?
Jesse: Hank Williams was a favorite of my grandfather and he introduced me to it a number of years ago. Unfortunately, he passed away, so I guess it is a way of reconnecting with him.

If you could see any musician perform (living or dead), who would it be?
Jesse: Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Cab Calloway, Les Paul, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and The Clash. I would have loved to see these people because of the way they shaped and changed music.

What’s your favorite Hank Williams lyric?
Jesse:  It’s from “Angel of Death” – I’ve had an affinity for this song for a number of years.  “The Angel of Death will come from the sky and claim your poor soul when the time comes to die.”

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Filament Theatre Ensemble, ChicagoEric Labanauskas appears as Leon, called “Loudmouth” by Hank and the band, the taciturn fiddle player.  No stranger to the Musicians-Biography-As-Stage-Musical concept, Eric spent a number of years traveling around the country as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story.  But now he’s trading in those trademark coke-bottle glasses and guitar to pick up the fiddle again – an instrument Eric has studied for over 18 years!

One of Hank’s biggest struggles was the idea of “success” – he made it to the top but once he was there, he was still lonely.  How do you define success for yourself?

Eric: Best I’ve heard it summed up comes courtesy of Lyle Lovett: “Success is getting to do what you love to do.” I think folks often shortchange themselves, and what seems like a small accomplishment – if one at all – is a mighty one.

If you could see any musician perform (living or dead), who would it be?
Eric: I never, ever, in my life thought I’d get as caught-up with Elvis as most the rest this country has seemed to. And then I made the trip to Memphis, and – of course – our first stop? Graceland. Walking out of there, I don’t think I can say I’ve looked at music the same way, ever again. Here was a guy doing something so new, so raw, so energetic…that would spring a country forward into the last half of the twentieth century. He was Rock, Roll, all of it. A good ‘ol boy. American to a “tee.” If for nothing else? Buddy Holly decided he wanted a career in Rock ‘n Roll after seeing Elvis perform. I’d simply want to go and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

What artists inspire you in your work?
Eric: Guys like Hank influence me. Or Buddy. Or Dylan. Or Johnny Cash. They took simple chords and transformed them with their words, singing them only like they could.  Their brilliance makes them musical legends, but their honesty makes them accessible, and I think that’s more important than anything in good music.

Is there a song that has special significance for you?
Eric: Whenever I’ve a quiet evening to myself  I’ll pop-on Buddy Holly’s “Apartment Tape” recordings. These weren’t known to the rest the world until they were released, posthumously. They’re as simple as can be: Buddy singing while backing himself on an acoustic guitar. The voice is the same and so is the simple chord structure, but there’s an emotional complexity that gets me every damn time.

What’s your favorite Hank Williams lyric?
Eric: “Did you ever see a robin weep/when the leaves begin to die/that means he’s lost the will to live/I’m so lonesome I could cry”

Hank Williams Lost Highway, Filament Theatre Ensemble, ChicagoAnd last but certainly not least, Tim McNulty plays Shag, the Drifting Cowboy’s steel guitar player – giving Hank that signature country sound.  Born in Vermont and raised in upstate New York, Tim has played many different instruments in many different styles – including punk rock, spiked hair and all.  During college, he wised up and finally ‘went country.’ After soaking up some genuine honky tonk sounds and working as a barbecue cook in Austin, Texas, he moved back north to Chicago in 2009. He currently plays guitar and sings for The Black Willoughbys, a Chicago- based Country/Americana band, and is studying steel guitar with local veteran Ken Champion.

What aspect of Hanks story do you most identify with?
Tim: I’m always inspired by the sort of mythic arc of his life — it’s the stuff of great novels. These days it reads like a cliche, but for him it was real: A man seemingly emerges from nowhere with guitar, songs and rugged voice that rattles the floorboards loose and takes no prisoners. Everything about country and pop music changes after Hank. Everything.

What are you most excited about for this production?
 Tim: Shit-kickin’ boots and pearl snap shirts!

If you could see any musician perform (living or dead), who would it be and why?
Tim: Impossible question. But, at this moment, I’d pick Billie Holiday. Because, she’s Billie Holiday.

What is your favorite Hank lyric?
Tim: “I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by
I went down to the river, so lonesome I wanted to die
but when I jumped in the river, the doggone river was dry”

Hank Williams, Drifting Cowboys, Chicago. Music, theatre, theater, folk, country

The Drifting Cowboys

Welcome to Filament’s on-going blog series, providing insight into the world of Hank Williams, both the real-life man and the production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway coming to the Athenaeum Theatre June 8 – July 8.   To kick off the blog, we’ll take a look at The Drifting Cowboys – the name Hank gave every band he ever played with – and what life as a touring country musician of the ’40s and ’50s was like.  Stay tuned for our next entry, where you’ll get to meet Filament’s own Drifting Cowboys!

Hank Williams, Drifting Cowboys, Chicago. Music, theatre, theater, folk, countryBefore we started work on Hank Williams: Lost Highway at Filament, if someone asked us what defined Hank Williams’ music we would probably have had any number of descriptions to offer: “heartbreak,” “loneliness,” or even “yodeling.” Now that we’ve done deeper research into the world of the play, we’re surprised at some of the things we’ve been able to add to this list of defining characteristics. For instance: “road trips.”

While Hank’s lyrics often touch on the classic, romanticized country theme of traveling far from one’s home on lost highways and the lonesome whistles of trains, we were surprised to learn that a huge daily volume of decidedly un-romantic travel played a huge role in the lifestyles of Hank and his band. In order to make money, Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys had to spend each night of each week in a different Southern city. He and the whole band piled into the bucket seat of a car and spent all day squeezed together in close, hot quarters. Travel schedules were punishingly tight: gas station stops couldn’t even last the time it takes to cook a hamburger, so the boys would buy a bag of donuts and a gallon of milk and call that dinner before they jumped out of the car and onto a stage that night.

With all this time spent in the car, when did Hank find the time to sit back and write his famous songs? The answer is that more than one of them was written on the road. In interviews, Hank’s former bandmates recall the fact that Hank was the kind of artist who would think up a whole set of lyrics all of a sudden. On tour, however, there would be no room to pull out a guitar–or even a notebook–with the whole band crammed into a car. So on more than one occasion, Hank would announce that inspiration had struck, and a band member would pull the cardboard out of a freshly-laundered shirt so the songwriter could scrawl the lyrics out right then and there. These humble means produced some major hits, including the well-loved “Jambalaya.”

The Cowboys were surely delighted when Hank’s popularity earned them a coveted spot in the lineup of the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, but even this event didn’t get them more time at home with their families. Opry members were required to perform the Saturday show in Nashville twenty-six weekends out of every year. Though the Opry was a prestigious platform, it hardly paid well: even in the 1960s, the paid to artists was only $44 dollars a show. Hank Williams, Lost Highway, Chicago Theatre, Filament Theatre, Theater, folk, countryTo keep their earnings up the band had to take off first thing Sunday morning to play a huge outdoor show in one of the “country music parks” in states as far away as Pennsylvania, where the fees were more like $1000 a show. The rest of the week, the Drifting Cowboys rode across the Southern states with Hank for smaller shows, live radio performances, and various publicity events. Many of Hank’s bandmates had families in Nashville, as Hank himself did—but in the average week, it was rare for the Cowboys to spend more than an afternoon with their loved ones.

Over the years many musicians came and went through Hank’s band.  They were fired, quit, or drafted into military service.   The important thing is that, even though they came and went, these men spent a lot of time with Hank and many of them would have been considered friends of his. There was certainly a love and respect that was built up over the many weeks and years of traveling as they saw the country together, and changed the course of popular music along the way.

Now that you know a little bit about the historical Drifting Cowboys, look out for our next blog post, taking you behind the scenes with Filament’s Drifting Cowboys as seen in Hank Williams: Lost Highway.


Hank Williams, Hank, Williams, Theatre, Theater, Chicago, Filament Theatre Ensemble, Peter Oyloe, Julie Ritchey, Athenaeum Theatre, music, folk, country, Folk, Country

The Hank Williams: Lost Highway Story

Over the next several weeks, as we enter into rehearsals for Hank Williams: Lost Highway,we will be featuring articles delving into the story of Hank Williams’ life. Who were the Drifting Cowboys? What was Mama Lily really like? How did he come to write the music that has changed the world in some many wonderful ways? These are just a few of the things we will be looking into and sharing with you through videos, pictures, and audio clips from that period in American history.

We are really excited to be exploring the music and life of this wonderful American Legend with you and look forward to sharing more in the weeks to come!

Visit the Hank Williams: Lost Highway Show Information Page to find out more about how you can get in on the fun!

Hank Williams, Hank, Williams, Theatre, Theater, Chicago, Filament Theatre Ensemble, Peter Oyloe, Julie Ritchey, Athenaeum Theatre, music, folk, country, Folk, Country