By ALAN SMASON
Jason Petty strides onto the stage of BB’s Stage Door Canteen wearing a classic white country and western suit. On the sleeves and lapels are black musical notes and staffs with similar markings running up and down the seams of his pants. His outfit gives little doubt he is representing the rich tradition of country and western music and institutions like the Grand Ole Opry.
And that is only right. As he informs everyone early in his performance, he was selected in 1995 to originate the title role in Hank Williams: Lost Highways, a play about the beloved, but tragic country music figure. It was first presented at the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry and a cathedral to all who pray at the altar of country music.
Then, a few years later, the play was taken to an Off-Broadway venue in New York, where Petty received an Obie Award for performance in 2003.
Petty, who last was seen at the National World War II Museum’s performance space in 2016, had been scheduled to return in early 2020, but like everyone else, had first been postponed and eventually rescheduled due to the COVID pandemic. His long overdue booking is welcome relief to diehard Hank Williams fans and those in search of some solid entertainment in a casual setting.
Petty’s banter with the audience is both informative and humorous. He starts out by emerging from behind the BB’s Stage Door Canteen curtains, a guitar slung across his shoulder and as he launches into Williams’ favorite “Hey, Good Lookin’.” He asks the crowd “How many of you are in the mood for some Hank Williams music?” As he continues strumming the guitar, he answers himself with a sly smile: “I don’t know any!”
The songs he sings are mostly those of Williams, but he does acknowledge a few other pivotal influences on Williams, among them Jimmy Rodgers (“He’s in the Jailhouse Now”) and Roy Acuff (“Wabash Cannonball”).
Petty regales the audience with insight into Williams’ prolific recording career and his all-too-short life. We learn about his love for yodeling music, best exemplified by Rodgers, and how two of his early hits were about the honky tonk bars he frequented and took comfort in, many years before he could legally drink. Two of them – “Honky Tonkin'” and “Honky Tonk Blues” – are featured early on.
Petty introduces the audience to Williams’ abilities as a songwriter, relating how music publisher Fred Rose was doubtful Williams had actually penned the songs he claimed as his own. In order to test him, he created a scenario in which he passes his former love on the street walking hand in hand with her new boyfriend. Petty goes on to state that Rose challenged Williams to write a song about that and when he returned a half hour later, Williams was propped up at his desk and smoking a cigarette.
Figuring he had triumphed, Rose admonished Williams to take his feet off his desk and prepared to see “the boy who drank so much” move on. But, as Petty tells us, Williams turned around, grabbed his guitar and told Rose “I think you’re gonna want to hear this one.” The result was “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” one of his biggest early hits.
Petty’s natural affinity with the material and down home country charm endears him to the audience. He moves on to favorites like “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which he claims was inspired by a Cajun restaurant menu, and then two of his most famous blues tunes, the similar-sounding “Lovesick Blues” and “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”
As to Williams personal life, Petty glosses over much of the antipathy between Williams and his first wife Audrey (née Sheppard), whom he divorced in 1952. It was Audrey Williams who was instrumental in getting his recording career jumpstarted and who completely dominated his career. According to Petty, the one good thing that came out of the divorce was Williams’ classic recording of an unfaithful wife, “You Win Again” prompted by her infidelity. His big hit, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” follows.
Petty also speaks little of Williams’ second wife, Billie Jean (née Jones), except to recognize her positive influence on him. Petty explains Williams was unable to control the physical pain he endured throughout his life from an undiagnosed congenital condition. According to Petty, a botched operation on his back was responsible for sending him to both the pill bottle and the alcohol bottle for relief.
Petty sings the mournful “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as his penultimate rendition prior to his singing an homage to Williams’ love of gospel music with the still popular “I Saw the Light,” a song with which he chose to close his many live performances.
With a swarthy grin, clever repartee and an easy manner, Petty brings the artist also known as Luke the Drifter to life through his music. Petty sings the songs with his own voice and quite enthusiastically, making the only downside to the show the fact it is only 75 minutes in length.
Jason Petty’s Hank Williams: The Lonesome Tour (1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission) continues on Friday and Saturday, May 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, May 22 at 2:00 p.m. at BB’s Stage Door Canteen, located within the National World War II Museum at 945 Magazine Street In New Orleans. For tickets, click here. For more information, dial 504-528-1943.