(SI) The music of Hank Williams has occupied a central place in the life, soul and muse of Americana hero Ward Hayden all but from the cradle. His annual Boston-area shows with his group saluting Williams every New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - the 1952/'53 dates when Hank was on his way to his next gig and died in the back of a Cadillac - "had quickly become a Boston-area tradition," notes the Quincy Patriot Ledger, since the first celebration in 2008.
Now, to mark the occasion of what would have been the Williams' 100th birthday on this coming September 17, Ward Hayden & The Outliers will release A Celebration of Hank Williams Live on the band's own Faster Horses Recordings on September 1. The 15-track set features some of the best-known and most-beloved Williams songs, plus four stories recorded from the band's live performance. For Hayden, the songs are also seminal numbers by his honky-tonk hero and an inspiration that he keeps returning to as a listener and fan. The album was produced by Hayden and his band: Josh Kiggans on drums and percussion, Cody Nilsen on guitar and pedal steel, and Handsome Greg Hall on electric and upright bass.
"Hank Williams' songs have always been a part of my life as I grew up in a household that played his music a lot," Hayden says. "Some of my earliest musical memories from when I was a kid singing along at the top of my lungs to some of his classic numbers like 'Kaw-Liga' and 'Why Don't You Love Me.'"
It's the second live recording from their Williams salutes. The first, released in 2018 when the group was known as Girls, Guns & Glory, was praised by the Boston Globe: "Hayden doesn't cover these songs; he shakes with them, almost bleeds them. They roll through him like prayer through a Southern preacher." The same and more can be said of how this new LP captures the eternal spirit of Hank's classic country compositions, recordings, and performances and brands them with the Outliers' own trademark country-rocking sound.
Hayden's 10th album and most-recent release earlier this year, South Shore, taps into a major country music tradition of writing about the small town where one grew up and calls home. And, in part, channels Williams as an influence. "Our song 'Blink of an Eye' shows the most Hank influence. It has the Chet Atkins style electric guitar part and also the sock rhythm on the acoustic guitar, which are both classic features of Hank Williams recordings. And it has the country yodel, reminiscent of Hank's yodel a la 'Lovesick Blues' or 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues.'
"Hank's yodel has been a major influence on me. I'd always wanted to include a yodeling song on one of our albums, and in our live show I do a lot of country yodeling. But it had never made its way onto one of our records before South Shore. And I must say that we had such a good time with that yodeling song that I wouldn't be surprised to see more country yodeling on future albums as well."
Though he was weaned on country artists, in his teen years, Ward fell under the sway of punk and ska music, playing drums in his first bands. While in college, he borrowed a Johnny Cash cassette from his mother to listen to on his drive back to school, and had an epiphany about the musical styles - country and early rock'n'roll - that he wanted to draw from as inspiration for his own contemporary musical endeavors.
Soon after his mother gifted him with a Gibson J-45 guitar and Hayden began working up country songs he loved and composing his own originals, finally starting a band that became The Outliers. They've since become leading lights on the Greater Boston scene alongside playing some 200 tour dates a year across North America and Europe. And are the only act to win both a Boston Music Award for Act of the Year (as well as with six other BMAs) and legendary Beantown radio station WBCN's annual Rumble as well as Independent Artist of the Year at the French Country Music Awards plus an Americana Music Awards nomination for Album of the Year.
Ward's esteem for Williams has led him to visit the Williams Museum and pay his respects at the country legend's gravesite in Montgomery, AL as well as Hank's boyhood home in Georgiana, AL, and collect classic Williams memorabilia. The Hank album's cover is based on a classic Williams poster from the show Hank was en route to when he shed his mortal coil.
"His story really is endlessly fascinating: A kid with a seventh grade education goes on to write some of the most lasting and influential music in the history of the genre," marvels Hayden, who will play select shows with The Outliers dedicated to songs by Williams around the time of Hank's birthday (dates to be announced).
"My biggest inspiration for wanting to put a band together and write my own music was a vision of creating music that combined the styles of Hank Williams and Chuck Berry," Ward explains. "Lyrics that tackled aspects of life that can be troubling and painful, but done with wit and honesty and sometimes with a bit of humor, and then to occasionally couple that with the rockin' sound of Chuck's style of rock'n'roll guitar. Sounds that hit hard and also make you want to move and experience joy."
A Celebration of Hank Williams Live track listing:
1. Ramblin' Man
2. Intro: No Courage without Fear
3. Settin' the Woods on Fire
4. Weary Blues from Waitin'
5. Intro: Hank's Last Song
6. I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive
7. Long Gone Lonesome Blues
8. Cold, Cold Heart
9. Intro: Leon Payne
10. Lost Highway
11. Honky Tonkin'
12. Intro: The Song that Made Him Famous
13. Lovesick Blues
14. Half as Much
15. Why Don't You Love Me