Tears stained the man’s face after singer Jason Petty’s concert at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. A sentimental George Jones simply wanted Petty to know what Petty’s Hank Williams salute-oriented show meant to him, and Jones’ emotion spoke clearer than anything.
“There was no bigger Hank Williams fan than me,” Jones told Petty. “I cried myself to sleep for a week in my bunk at Marine boot camp after Hank died (in 1953).”
Therein lies a powerful truth: that Petty’s 25-song tribute to a country music legend resurrects the very human and very raw man and artist that shaped and pioneered a genre.
That exchange a number of years ago is one of many that Petty has had since he began performing as Williams in concert and, for several years, acting as Williams in the off-Broadway production of “Lost Highway,” for which he earned an Obie, off-Broadway’s Oscar equivalent.
“So many people come up to me and tell me that they remember exactly where they were when they heard the news that Hank had died,” Petty said, speaking by phone from his home in his hometown of Manchester, Tennessee. “That’s the dramatic impact he had on that entire generation.”
The 42-year-old Petty, who has been crooning Williams’ classics — “Hey, Good Lookin’,” I’m So Lonesome I could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and more — on stages for two decades, brings his full band concert “Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 to that other Nashville, at the Brown County Playhouse, 70 S. Van Buren St.
If you love Williams’ sound and music, then well, the biggest music critics imaginable long ago decided that you’ll love Petty’s apparel, mannerisms, near-yodel vocals, you name it. Take it from guitarist Don Helms, considered Williams’ best friend and longtime guitarist.
“No one in my time has come closer to Hank’s look, sound and natural charisma than Jason,” Helms said. “He’s the best, hands down.”
Also take it from Anthony Decurtis’ review in Rolling Stone.
“He varies his delivery with the command of a performer who is fully inhabiting his character, not merely rendering him,” Decurtis wrote. “I was genuinely surprised, even stunned, by Petty’s forceful, clear-eyed and moving depiction of Williams.”
That very depiction is why so many of Williams’ friends and fans have shared their favorite Hank stories with Petty through the years. Petty intersperses those recollections into this show that he regularly refers to as “a musical narrative.”
Petty fully understands the major differences of yesterday’s world and today’s, and how Williams struggled mightily in an earlier society that seldom encouraged men to be vulnerable or disarmingly honest.
“Back then, we called what he went through simple loneliness,” Petty said, pointing out that Williams’ dad was “shellshocked” after World War I, which would be PTSD today. “Today, we call it clinical depression. He said he always felt lonely even in a crowd of friends.”
The show also includes music from additional country pioneers such as the Carter Family and Roy Acuff to provide a backdrop of Williams’ surroundings in his short, 29-year life.
“That is in there to tell people that this is what he grew up with,” Petty said.
The singer has no plans to push any of his own music that he has toyed with. In fact, he has said that he is committed to spotlighting Williams’ legacy and the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, for the rest of his life. In fact, he’s playing a concert there Sept. 17 — what would have been the singer’s 100th birthday.
“My narrative gives you the full story (of him),” Petty said. “You see that Hank was such a good-natured person when his demons would let up.”
About the show
Who: Singer Jason Petty presenting a concert largely of Hank Williams tunes while performing as the legendary crooner.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22.
Where: Brown County Playhouse, 70 S. Van Buren St. in Nashville.