[Podcast]: THE HANKILATION
Today is April 2, 2012. It would have been my father’s 60th birthday.
It’s strange to realize that if my parents were alive today, they’d be noticeably older than I remember them. As it is, they are flash frozen in time the way they looked the last time I saw them on December 21, 2005, the morning after my 27th birthday. They dropped me off at the gallery where I worked and began the 2000-mile drive from Seattle back to Wichita Falls, Texas. They almost made it home.
Six melancholy Christmases have come and gone since that unfathomable phone call and the strange, ghostly weeks that followed in its wake. (It recently occurred to me that later this year I will probably be getting an invitation to the parole hearing of the repeat offender who drunkenly crossed a bit too far over the center line that night.)
Despite the tragic circumstances of their passing, something about Hank and June departing on an eternal road trip seems oddly appropriate to the way they lived their lives. A few weeks ago, as I was riding home from SXSW with my bandmates, I was thinking about how much road trips and the music that accompanies them have been a recurring theme in my life. When I was young, my family would often make the drive between Wichita Falls and rural Iowa, where we had lived until I was eleven and where the rest of my mom’s family had remained. My dad knew every oldies radio station on the dial along the route and would fill the hours on the road by singing along with every song. My sister and I would quiz him on his almost encyclopedic knowledge of radio hits from the 50s to the early 70s. He knew all of the names of the bands and could often pinpoint what year a single had been popular based on the memories he had associated with it.
Every once in awhile, I would hear a new/old song on the radio and know all the words immediately, as though I had heard it a million times, despite never having heard it before. This is because my dad would also sing when he was not listening to any music at all—in the bathroom, eating cereal straight out of the box in the kitchen, planting crepe myrtles in his decaying summer gardening shorts—whatever he happened to be doing, he was usually also singing. And while he had broad taste in music, the songs he would sing unaccompanied tended to have some characteristics in common. He especially liked country songs with lots of complicated, rhythmically intricate words, like Leroy Van Dyke’s “The Auctioneer” and doo-wop songs with a lot of “dang-a-dang-ding-dong” parts like The Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” Then there were the road songs: trucker ballads, train songs, and songs about trafficking moonshine. (For a brief time in the late 1960s, he drove a truck for his cousin Kenny’s trucking company. I imagine that this is probably when he picked up many of the road songs.)
At some point, I started keeping a list of the songs that my dad would sing around the house. Some songs were his “classic repertoire,” coming out again and again on a weekly or near-daily basis. Others would come and go in phases, spending a week or two “in rotation” before taking a backseat to whatever popped into his head next. When the Internet became a thing, I started collecting digital versions of the music on the list, and when my friend Johno became the first person I knew with a CD burner, I enlisted his help to burn a CD called the HANKILATION for my dad as a birthday gift. This was around 1999 or 2000.
Hank was flattered, but he also had some suggestions for improving the compilation, or at least making it more accurate from his perspective. For instance, I had included Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” “The one I sing is the Grateful Dead version,” he informed me, so I swapped it out. Same with Willie Nelson’s cover of Steve Goodman’s wistful disappearing railroad anthem “City of New Orleans.” The list grew and I started working on a second volume. Knowing he was being documented, he started singing songs that he wanted on the comp on purpose. That was cheating, but I could tell the difference. (Sorry, Dad. No “Insane in the Brain.” Only the songs that you sang before you knew I was working on a compilation count.)
The playlist below comprises what I have deemed to be the definitive version of the HANKILATION. For me, every song on this compilation conjures a flood of memories of my father singing, and the final song on the list is a lively rendition of my dad singing The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” at a Texas karaoke bar a few months before his death. In retrospect, I feel very fortunate to have this recording.
So there you have it. I recommend downloading the HANKILATION [link here] and listening to it on the road with someone you love.
Happy birthday, Dad. (I mean that from the bottom of my boogity, boogity, boogity-shoop.)
1. Freddy Cannon – Palisades Park
2. Leroy Van Dyke – The Auctioneer
3. Tennessee Ernie Ford – Sixteen Tons
4. The Marcels – Blue Moon
5. Dave Dudley – Six Days on the Road
6. Sue Thompson – Norman
7. Robert Mitchum – The Ballad of Thunder Road
8. Johnny Cash – Rock Island Line
9. Desmond Dekker and the Aces – The Israelites
10. Gene Chandler – Duke of Earl
11. Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
12. Mungo Jerry – In the Summertime
13. Barry Mann – Who Put the Bomp?
14. Jim Croce – Bad Bad Leroy Brown
15. Willie Nelson – City of New Orleans
16. New Riders of the Purple Sage – Henry
17. Johnny Cash – One Piece at a Time
18. The Beatles – Back in the USSR
19. Mason Proffit – Eugene Pratt
20. Grateful Dead – Mama Tried
21. Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man
22. Hank Pothast – Ramblin’ Man