Saturday, September 3, 2011

September 3: Hank Williams, "Your Cheatin' Heart"

Artist: Hank Williams
Song: "Your Cheatin' Heart"
Album: Your Cheatin' Heart (single)
Year: 1953

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Though one cannot overstate the importance of those who can be seen as the founders of any musical genre as a whole, it is often the artists that brought a specific style its largest change that as the most recognized as the decades pass.  Whether it is the somewhat "lost" presence of early jazz and rock performers, or the fact that countless cover songs are better known by the copier as opposed to the original artist, this trend has existed throughout the entire history of recorded music.  This is not necessarily a negative judgment on the later performers in question, and the "good" that such instances can produce is perhaps no more clear than when one looks at the history of country music.  While he certainly did not found the genre in any way whatsoever, one can easily argue that there is no figure more critical to the development of the modern country sound than Hank Williams.  His name alone commands a reverence all across the musical spectrum, and one can find covers and tributes to his music from almost every musical style and every generation.  Williams also holds the distinction of being on the list of artists that passed away far too early, as he only lived to twenty-nine years old, and he was struck down as he approached the height of his fame.  However, his songs have lived on forever, and there is no more definitive a country tune than Hank Williams' magnificent 1953 single, "Your Cheatin' Heart."

While there is no arguing that every aspect of "Your Cheatin' Heart" is absolutely perfect, it is the way that Hank Williams deploys each element which makes the song so fantastic, and it begins with the brilliantly orchestrated, somewhat subtle musical arrangement.  The moment the song begins, the almost crying steel guitar instantly sets the tone, and while it is firmly rooted in the country style, there is some intangible element to this playing that makes it quickly appealing to fans of every musical genre.  It is the soft, almost lonesome sway that runs throughout "Your Cheatin' Heart" that makes it so easy to relate to, and on many levels the song represents the epitome of the ability of music to capture a human emotion without words.  The way that the guitar piece manages to blend perfectly with the steady bounce of the bass is the very essence of country music, as one can feel the movement similar to a horse's gait.  The addition of the fiddle throughout the track provides a superb diversity in sound, and it is the way in which these three elements work together that would become the blueprint for the contemporary country sound.  From the "twang" in the guitar to the smooth, sliding sound of the fiddle solo, there is not a moment that feels forced or out of place, and it is this true musical perfection that has enabled "Your Cheatin' Heart" to become an absolutely timeless musical achievement.

It is also the way that the captivating voice of Hank Williams works within this musical structure that makes "Your Cheatin' Heart" truly unforgettable, and the combination of raw emotion and his sturdy singing voice remain unparalleled to this day.  Williams is able to easily work all across the vocal scale, and it is the almost crooning nature that runs underneath his vocals that give it an appeal beyond that of "just" country fans.  Even when his voice seems to waver for moments here and there, the conviction with which he is singing never lets up for a moment, and it is this completely raw and unguarded attitude which makes "Your Cheatin' Heart" such an unforgettable musical experience.  Perfectly displaying the "cowboy" sound within both his singing style and lyrical approach, one can argue that "Your Cheatin' Heart" is the finest song of heartbreak that has ever been recorded, as it is the simplicity of the lyrics that make them applicable to any person from any culture at any time in history.  Williams never lets up on the lyrics, as he digs deeper and deeper into his dismay and sorrow at his love lost under these circumstances, but it is the fact that one can interpret just "why" it ended on a number of levels that makes his such an exceptional achievement.  At every note, Williams expresses his feelings to their fullest, and regardless of ones' personal musical preferences, it is impossible to not get completely caught up in this true musical mastery.

Truth be told, "Your Cheatin' Heart" was not released until after the tragic and sudden passing of Hank Williams, and yet it lives on as his most memorable recording.  Over the decades since its release, it has become one of the most heavily covered songs of all time, with artists ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis to Beck cutting their own takes.  Among the myriad of cover versions, the likes of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and Don McLean all made recordings that had their own chart success, and yet there has never been another version that comes close to the feelings and intensity of the original.  It is the pure, almost humble sound and tone all across Hank Williams' recording of "Your Cheatin' Heart" that sets it aside from the others, and it is this aspect that has also made the song a consistent choice for use in all sorts of popular culture.  From films to television to commercials, "Your Cheatin' Heart" stands as one of the most recognized songs all across the globe, and the fact of the matter is, the song remains as relevant and powerful today as it was more than half a century ago.  This "staying power" is one of the most rare occurrences in all styles of music, and this in itself is enough to cement the iconic status of Hank Williams.  Yet the fact that almost every country artist that followed him borrowed heavily from his style cannot be denied, and one would be hard pressed to find a more definitive country song, or another recording that so accurately captures real human heartbreak than what can be found on Hank Williams' extraordinary 1953 single, "Your Cheatin' Heart."

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