This week in rock history, Hank Williams made his debut on the live radio show, Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. That was on June 11, 1949, and it says somewhere that he got an unprecedented six encore calls from the audience at the Ryman Auditorium. Must’ve thrown the radio show clear off its schedule.
But wait a minute: “Rock history?” Yes indeed. Many rockers point to Williams, a live wire who wrote great, lived hard and died young, as a prime influence. Check out Bob Dylan in his landmark documentary, Don’t Look Back, and you’ll find him in a hotel room with pal Joan Baez, launching into a couple of Williams tunes, including “Lonesome Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rollin’ stone, all alone and lost…”
Williams had only a few hits of his own before he died in a car on his way to a concert in the early hours of 1953, at age 29. But check out Boxcar Willie’s Hank medley in the Legends in Concert program featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and you’ll hear songs you’ve known, as done by Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and Lewis himself: “Your Cheating Heart,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love with You,” “You Win Again.” Willie winds up with a song, “Move it On Over,” that Tom Hiddleston points to when he says that Williams was “the inventor of rock and roll.”
Tom Hiddleston, the British actor? He plays the villain Liko in those Marvel movies about Thor and the Avengers, right? And he just took a star turn in the miniseries, The Night Manager, that got people in Hollywood and elsewhere anointing him the next James Bond. And he’s a trained Shakespearean actor as well. What’s he doing talking about rock and roll?
He starred as Hank Williams in the movie, I Saw the Light. If you blinked, you missed it; it was that explosive a bomb. But it wasn’t a bad movie, and Hiddleston drew raves for transforming himself (with immense assistance from Rodney Crowell) into the greatest country music legend of all time, coming out of Montgomery, Alabama.
To promote the movie, which featured Elizabeth Olsen as a former wife who couldn’t sing, Hiddleston toured several cities. In San Francisco, he was asked to appear at the first two screenings and sit for post-movie chats and Q&As with the audiences. Sony Pictures’ local publicity firm asked me to conduct the sessions. The first was at a small movie house. The crowd was stunned to suddenly see Hiddleston in person. I was relieved, as his dinner party arrived late, and we met only when he and director Mark Abraham stepped onto the stage.
But in my research, I’d seen where he’d made the claim about Williams and rock and roll. In 1955, Bill Haley hit with “Rock Around the Clock,” said to be the beginning of rock music. But in 1947, Williams had scored with “Move it On Over.” The first verse of “Rock” mirrored Hank’s tune, in structure, tempo and melody. I’d also seen, online and on TV, Hiddleston singing with Ethan Hawke and Stephen Colbert. So when I brought up the subject, I was ready.
Hiddleston stated his theory and obligingly began singing Hank’s tune. Two lines in, I joined in with Haley’s hit. Hiddleston was delighted and reeled us back to begin the song again, together. We did, and his point was proven.
We did it again at the second theater an hour or so later, and, again, the audience was delighted, shooting their phones up in the air to capture it. Blurry bits may be on YouTube.
I was not exactly in a position to shoot a selfie video of us, but here’s a minute audio and photo, by a fan, of the two of us. Hiddleston does have sole.
Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.