The life of country music singer-songwriter Hank Williams plays like a chapter pulled from Southern Gothic fiction in “Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams.” If Williams’ rapid self-destruction is the stuff of tragedy, the priceless treasury of music he left in his wake is cause for celebration — which explains the success of this musical.
A Ryman Auditorium production, “Highway” carefully presents Williams’ songs as cherished heirlooms rediscovered among history’s rubble. The show dates back to a 1988 sold-out run at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, and was later purchased by Gaylord Entertainment (which also owns the rights to the Williams catalogue), revised by director Ted Swindley and presented for six months last year at the restored Ryman, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Thanks to Swindley’s continued honing, the second-year revival of “Lost Highway” finally hits its mark. The musical that now roves the Ryman’s venerable floors is a smooth-running compendium of songs woven through a historical narrative about the man who created them.
Williams’ story is that of a lanky, undereducated musician who emerges from the Alabama backwoods, arcs to stardom on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and dies less than four years later in the back seat of a baby blue Cadillac convertible — his body saturated with prescription drugs and alcohol.
Jason Petty delivers an excellent two-hour performance, mastering many of Williams’ facial mannerisms and vocal inflections, while unveiling his character’s enthralling rise to fame and his heartbreaking fall from grace.
Williams is raised by a tight-fisted, God-fearing Southern matriarch, powerfully portrayed by Margaret Bowman. Mama Lilly buys her son his first guitar and drives him and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, to their early gigs. She even secures the chicken wire strung between the band and the audience to deflect the flying beer bottles.
These are fecund songwriting days for Williams, during which he crafts such upbeat tunes as “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky-Tonk Blues” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” It is also during this time that he finds inspiration in gospel songs, hillbilly music and the pain-soaked sounds of his friend Tee-Tot (Barry Scott), a black itinerant blues musician. Later, as Williams’ life collapses around him, his recollection of Tee-Tot’s blues enables him to pen “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
For all its spiraling tragedy, the musical is rife with comic moments, including the vaudevillian “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” routines of the Drifting Cowboys (Ollie O’Shea, David Spicher and Philip Watson), and the off-key aspirations and petulant temper tantrums of Williams’ sexy wife, Audrey (Aubrie Washburn).
At the end of the show, after an appropriately restrained death scene, the cast rejoins Williams for a glorious hand-clapping rendition of “I Saw the Light.” “What happened to Hank Williams?” Tee-Tot muses. “Somebody heard him sing — that’s what happened.”