The first show of Riverside Theatre’s 2017-18 season, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, repeats the success of its 2016-17 opener about Johnny Cash – a hootenanny of down home country music and great insights into the life of another American original. In this case, Hank Williams’ life ended long before his impact on the music scene could reach its zenith. Elvis Presley died young at 42, but imagine what would the world have lost if he had died at 29?
For those skeptics who discount the importance of Hank Williams because his career began when country music was localized in the Deep South, miss the point. Music and musicians evolve. Today’s country music is more mainstream than mountain stream. Don’t forget that Johnny Cash started out as strictly country and ended with many of the most popular tunes in the American song book.
Williams was born September 17, 1923, in rural Mount Olive, Alabama, almost mid-way between Montgomery and Mobile. He grew up poor but began picking a guitar at age eight. In five years he would make his radio debut and by the early 40s he was being courted by music executives in Nashville. Williams is played in convincing fashion by Ben Hope. While his mother Lily, portrayed by Marcy McGuigan, is clearly the driving force in his early career. He met and married singer Audrey Mae Sheppard, played by Katie Barton-Hope, who in real life gave birth to his son, Hank Williams, Jr., also a country music legend. Tony Perry plays “Tee Tot” in the show, an African-American blues singer who was a mentor and musical influence on Williams from his childhood until Tee Tot died in 1939.
Hank Williams died from alcohol and drug abuse in 1953, far too young, but not before he wrote many hit songs including “Hey Good Lookin,’” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the title song from the show, “Lost Highway.”
The show was written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, who weave the most important moments of Hank Williams’ life between performances of his hit songs. But this production is not about his death at 29, even though that is covered at the beginning, and not about his alcohol and drug problems, which are certainly a part of his story. What it is though, is a celebration of his life and music. The musicians performing onstage are excellent and the singing, especially from Ben Hope, comes from the heart and soul.
You must make plans to see this brilliant production ASAP, because it will end on November 12. Ticket are still available if you contact Riverside Theatre at 772-231-6990 or visit the website at www.riversidetheatre.com. Hurry, y’all!