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Jason Petty brings the spirit of Hank Williams to Lodi

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Posted: Monday, February 26, 2018 3:17 pm

Jason Petty’s celebration of country legend Hank Williams started with an acting job. While performing at Nashville’s Opryland theme park, the actor caught the attention of the musical “Lost Highway,” about Williams’ life.

Petty stepped into the role of Hank Williams, performing at the Ryman Auditorium — former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

“Beautiful theatre. We were there for two years,” he said.

At the time, he didn’t comprehend how important Williams was to the country music world — or the musical industry as a whole. But while performing as Hank in Nashville and later off-Broadway in New York, he came to understand.

The country icon’s family members came to see the show. So did big country stars who were inspired by Williams. A lot of them reached out to Petty to share stories about Hank and how much he meant to them.

At one point, country superstar Alan Jackson dropped by after the show with tears in his eyes to give the cast his compliments, Petty said.

Petty also got to know Don Helms, who played for a time with Williams and was his best friend. Through Helms, Petty got to know little facts about Hank, like how he gave a nickname to everyone he liked and called those he didn’t like by their proper names.

“I didn’t fall in love with Hank Williams’ music. I fell in love with the people who loved Hank Williams,” he said.

Throughout the run of “Lost Highway,” Petty collected stories about Hank Williams. At the end of the musical’s run, he decided to gather those stories together and put together a show that focused on Williams’ music and shared tidbits about his life.

The show has grown throughout the years to include a wide variety of Williams’ music, along with songs by other country greats he inspired.

“At times it seems as if Petty is not just offering an impersonation of Williams, but channeling his ghost,” the New York Post wrote.

That’s due in part to people like Helms, who helped Petty get to know Williams the man as well as Williams the country star.

“I wanted to know the intimate things about Hank, as an actor. I wanted to know how he laughed. Was he happy all the time? Did he go through periods of melancholy or sadness?” Petty said.

All those little details have gone into his show.

It’s a fitting tribute to a man who, despite his early death of a heart attack at age 29, was a hugely influential musician who continues to inspire today.

“Country music was just in its infancy when Hank came along,” Petty said.

Williams helped mold the musical genre, based on blues, gospel, rock and roll, honky tonk and other styles. His song “Move It On Over” is considered one of the first rockabilly songs ever recorded, Petty said, and he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“He was a trendsetter,” Petty said.

“Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes” goes beyond just the music of Hank Williams. It also includes some of the music Williams listened to growing up that molded his own career, back before country was a defined genre. Back then, when Williams was a kid, the Grand Ole Opry was a radio show that came on right after the Metropolitan Opera’s hour-long program. The radio show included folk, blues, gospel and more.

“It had a mix of everything in it because country music didn’t know what it was going to be yet,” Petty said.

The growth of radio made all kinds of music accessible to anyone with a radio set. Someone who might never have heard gospel or opera or jazz live could tune in and hear it over the radio.

“Radio changed the world,” Petty said.

His show also includes songs by country superstars whose own careers owe so much to Williams. Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery,” written about Williams, is one of a handful Petty and his band will perform.

His band is a key part of the show, and his musicians are among the best. Petty has made a point of searching out musicians who can play instruments the way Hank and his band would have. For example, these days, steel guitar is played with a pedal, but back in Williams’ day, a guitarist had to know how to use their hands to get the same twangy sound.

Petty also hires fiddlers, not violinists — it’s the same instrument, but the playing style is completely different, he said.

“The first thing you want to get right in a production like this is the music,” he said. “If you mess up the music, you might as well not show up.”

Petty’s favorite part of the show is how the audience reacts. While Hank Williams didn’t have the best voice, his honesty really resonates with people, he said.

“Hank’s music has been called three chords and the truth,” he said.

And Petty works hard to share stories from people who really knew Williams — friends, former bandmates, family members — so that the audience can get to know him, too.

For Petty, this show and others showcasing classic country have become his life’s work. He grew up in the middle of Tennessee a stone’s throw from the Grand Ole Opry, and as he learned more about Williams and other early country stars, he became dedicated to preserving their work and sharing their stories.

“They did it because they loved it, and they loved each other, and they were each other’s best friends,” he said.

He wanted to make sure that not just the music but the people behind it survive.

“My life’s mission is pretty much to preserve and promote traditional country music,” he said.



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