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The man who set the stage for musical icons

Dead for almost 60 years, Hank Williams is still synonymous with country music. The legacy he created before passing at the age of 29 remains compelling today. Hank – like many artists who came after, one name is enough for people to know who you’re talking about – changed the face of country music, putting it on the map, says performer Joe Matheson, who’s Hank Williams Live – 1952 comes to the Commercial Tavern June 10.

“Hank was a real character. He was Elvis and Michael Jackson wrapped up in one,” he said.

Matheson first became intrigued by Williams’ story in 2000 when he was called in as a last-minute replacement in a production of The Show He Never Gave, performing as the legendary singer-songwriter. Cramming for a few days to get ready for the part, he was surprised by just how many of the songs he already knew, perhaps something he picked up as a kid growing up in Saskatchewan.

That role piqued his interest and he began looking into Williams’ life, which was often portrayed in a negative light – “they seem to paint him as the devil.”

Finding few sympathetic portrayals, he wrote a show of his own, which he first staged in 2006, seeing it evolve into the much-lauded production that will appear next weekend on stage in Maryhill.

Happenstance brought him to Hank Williams, but he’s since grown attached to the character.

“I have a huge affection for this guy, and a lot of compassion.”

Born in 1923 in rural Alabama, Williams had a rough life, which contributed to his well-documented issues with alcohol, drugs and failed marriages. Behind all the troubles and moodiness – he was a lonely man because nobody seemed able to understand him – there’s an interesting and complex character to be discovered, said Matheson, insisting there’s more to Williams than his live-fast, die young reputation.

“He’s kinda the poster boy for that,” he admitted.

While recording a CD of Hank Williams tunes – Long Gone Lonesome – in 2006 in Nashville, he met with Don Helms, the steel guitar player in Williams’ band, the Drifting Cowboys. From Helms, the last surviving member of that lineup, Matheson got some firsthand accounts of Williams, stories that formed the basis of Hank Williams Live – 1952.

“A lot of shows have everybody talking about Hank. With my show, it’s Hank talking about everybody else,” he laughed.

Matheson knew he was on to something when even hardcore Hank Williams’ fans approached him after his shows to tell him they’d learned something new about the man. The production is not a tribute show, but rather his own take on Hank’s life.

“It’s like you’ve gone to the bar and it just so happens Hank Williams is playing tonight.”

While the 1952 performance he recreates never happens, events unfold as they might have in that fateful time leading up to Williams’ Jan. 1, 1953 death.

“It’s not a true story, but all of the stories in it are true,” he explained.

There are stories told from the stage, but the real attraction is the authentic treatment of Williams’ songs.

“This is old-time Hank Williams’ honky-tonk – a honky-tonk couple of hours,” said Matheson of the music that helped make the legend.

Today, that legend lives on, which is why he sees people of all ages at his shows – they all know who Hank is.

“It’s quite a phenomenal thing.”

Joe Matheson’s Hank Williams Live – 1952 is set for June 10 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20, available at the Commercial Tavern, 1303 Maryhill Rd., or by calling 519-648-3644.

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