Why Nova Scotia’s Hank Snow Ain’t Comin’ Home No More
The first thing you notice going south is the haircuts. It’s not simply that they’re short. Northern drawing-room fantasists have always decorated their gimcrack vision of the south with nail-clipper crews and shocked toothbrush hair. It’s the variety of them. In the Fifties you could walk into one of those neon and bakelite barbershops with torn magazine pictures of Tony Curtis pinned in the window and walk out with a piece of sculpture on your head. It went with the hard-edge streamlining, the competitively snarling fender work of the times. And in the south you still can. There are any number on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, right now, hair combed and oiled upward to perfectly achieved ridges or else arching toward the nape like vermicelli.
To go south is to go back. The women wear bouffants or beehives or frozen waterfalls of hair over their stretch pants and white cardigans and pearls, and they have that slightly translucent, pale skin that comes from inherited undernourishment. The men wear glee-club blazers and woolen shirts and chunky sweaters. They’re robust and tanned and big at the hip, contemptuous in their very size of all those big-city androgynes with their meatless figures and ambiguous hair. Being a woman in the south is a reflexive condition, like being in quarantine for a disease you caught from somebody. Being a man is to do with size and strength and the woman you have at your drinking elbow or waiting for you at home. The anachronistic fan magazine hair, the old finned Chevies and station wagons that tool into the Opry every weekend from Commerce, Georgia, or Graniteville, South Carolina, are the props and furniture of the Southern dream. The dream says that a man is what he carves out of his opportunities, that his possessions are
the measure of his life and that change is something that can only deprive an existence precariously propped against poverty and bad times. It says, above all, that a man can make it if he doesn’t quit.
Hank Snow has made it. Twice every Saturday Opryland tour buses take Interstate 65 north out of Nashville to the landscaped bungalows of Madison, Tennessee. There, for two or three Kodak Instamatic minutes, the descendants of the men and women who fled potato famine and highland clearances gaze at a hypostatized version of the good life their ancestors looked for, a sprawling one-story house snug against a white picket fence and a ranch-entrance arch. “And this is where good ole Hank Snow settled when he came to the Opry in 1950.” It's impossible to reproduce the laggard voice of the guide with its corkscrew vowels. To many Americans, who cling to cities and an unearned liberalism, it’s an alien voice, the voice of portly courtesy and threats in the night. But to the devotees on the bus it’s the authentic voice of their music and their dream, as inalienable as the brown skin of a guru or the short, stumpy neck of a guard. And they crane and whisper, memorizing for their friends this house of 65 million records as the bus rushes off to Loretta Lynn's Western Store or Andrew Jackson’s plantation.
There is no fanaticism in this weekly rubbernecking. To a man not touched by the dream, it’s more like a cross between a religious audit, a group of elders soberly checking out the morals of their incumbent and a hushed museum tour. Not for nothing is Nashville's Country and Western Music Hall of Fame built like a church, one of those upright triangles of glass and wood that provide for the worship of displaced people in new towns everywhere. It's an exact objective correlative for the reverence country people feel for their music and the texture of its past. To begin with, the average hardcore country fan is a long way from his hell-raising teens, as are the stars he made before electricity and youth and imitation diluted the purity of the music. There are no giggling teenyboppers in the Hall of Fame or the tour buses. But even if there were, the Grand Ole Opry could never be like the Filmore East or the Avalon in San Francisco. Rock performers promote fantasies of how its audience would like to be, perfectly young, perfectly sexual or perfectly skilled. It is the peculiar quality of country musicians that they promote fantasies of how their audience believe themselves to be, involved with love and home and God, just plain folks.
Driving out of Nashville to Hank Snow’s house is like running a film about the development of a city backward. You start with a straggling ribbon of gaudy boomtown services, diners and service stations and superettes in a fantasy fairground of streamers and bunting, giant pawing horses and beckoning chefs. Even the churches have neon invitations to worship winking out a message from God against the sun and the dust. Then you pass through municipal Nashville: gaunt business buildings, a grimy station where they say Johnny Cash wants to open a museum, and the plain offices of men with enough money not to have to be flash. Then, as you leave town, you see here and there one of those southern palaces, porticoed in a great yawn of pillars, or its 20th-century descendant, a gabled house painted in the precise acrylic black, red and green of a plastic garden gnome. Then you hit the country. It rolls away either side of the highway, unforgiving and endless. And, in the face of it, you can begin to see what a gesture of faith the neon and clapboard architecture of the roadside actually is, the same faith of community that led men to pause and build and hang together here in the eye of an envious god.
You also realize that there are still two Nashvilles. I rode out with a laconic giant, a C. W. Samuels bourbon ad humped on the back of his taxi. “Hank Snow, eh? Yeah, ole Hank lives out there in Madison next to his boy Jimmy. Jimmy’s a preacher now, they say. Yeah. Movin’ On. Hank Snow. Don't go for hillbilly music myself. But Movin’ On. I think that’s it.” Few people in Nashville will confess to a love of country music or regular visits to the Opry. The cities of the south have their own caste system, and the imperatives of self-improvement definitely exclude hillbillies when it comes to defining yourself in terms of what you like. The taximan was saying, in effect, “I’m a self-made man, a city man.” The industry is fine, you understand, with its 53 record companies and its 400 publishing houses, its tourists and its vision of the city as a kind of oak-apple paradise. But Nashville was here before. And the industry also brings with it the money that pays for the Belle Meade Country Club, the symphony orchestra, and the gabled fantasies or suburban Shangri-las that line the roads on the way out of town. After all, unless they are steeped and pickled in it, men back off from the music of poverty. New tastes are like campaign medals in the battle of the way up. The first things to go are the old uniforms of homely furniture and one-taste record racks. So why do the country stars stay here? They might be better off in California, that golden land where everybody is a star before they start, where, at any rate, there is an open aristocracy of money, rather than in this city of old conservatism and brash new fortunes and a difficult line between.
The only thing remotely brash about Hank Snow is his taste in shirts. By the time I got out to Madison, I had already called or seen a number of people in search of a description of him. “Reserved,” said Lucky Moeller, his manager. “Not too familiar, a loner,” said Chet Atkins. So I was surprised by the shirt, which had a suggestion of Hawaii in it and a lot of orange. It was the kind of shirt a man who spends his life in suits wears secretly at home. And it was difficult on shaking hands not to mentally suit him, to turn him into one of those trim middle-aged French politicians with hooded eyes, a high forehead and a reputation for obstinacy. He actually looks like that. It’s not something you can see in his publicity pictures or his old songbooks, because he’s always smiling a wry version of the good-time country smile. But, up close, he’s reserved and courteous, with just that hint of patriarch that the politician would have.
We sat across a big wooden desk from each other in the paneled office he’s built onto the side of his house. His secretary Betty (careful black hair, demure pink dress and two diving loops of pearls) shuttled coffee to us through the tooled leather furniture, and kept the callers at bay.
If you've been through two days of massive handshakes from the people of the country, Hank Snow seems very slight, different somehow. It’s as if being born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, has estranged him from their size and familiarity, left him with a small melancholy. It's certainly said that he has few close friends in the country and western establishment. He doesn't hang out in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge or any other of the Opryland meeting places like some of them do. Nor has he left his mark on the Nashville landscape, like Roger Miller or Minnie Pearl, with their motels and / continued on page 59 franchise diners. It’s hard to pin down, this slight feeling of regret that comes out of his conversation. It’s not the music. Country music was no automatic inheritance as it is in the Great Smoky Mountains or the Appalachians. He had to earn it in poverty and struggle, and it means more to him, perhaps, than to the hopeful picker who hitches a ride up from Georgia or Mississippi to make it in Nashville. It’s not his comparative lack of education. He has all the pride of a self-educated man. It's not obviously the hard road he came. He calls it the “best schooling in the world.” Perhaps it’s the fact that to have to travel hopefully for too long leaves scars that even success can’t erase. Perhaps it’s the memory of a broken home. The only three times he used the word “despise” he was talking about California, where he lost all his money, New York, which country people regard as the breeding ground of all city sins, and his stepfather, whom he obviously hated.
Hank Snow’s 58 now. It seems natural to ask him about the past, just as you would ask a haler or a younger man about the future. “In my part of Canada they seemed to accept country music. This was even before Jimmie Rodgers. Vernon Dalhart was one of the early ones, and Carson Robison. Songs like The Prisoner’s Song and The Wreck Of The Old 97. As a child I knew them. We had an old windup phonograph. Then my mother bought a guitar, a mail-order situation with 52 free lessons, and I learned to pick a little bit on that. There were very few radio stations then, as a matter of fact. But, when I was 12, I went to sea, and at sea there was a little old thing you could tune in. We used to have these fishery stations, and play these different programs, get the weather forecasts, where the ice was in the Atlantic and so forth. I remember there was one station run by the Marconi Company, the Marconi Station out of Nova Scotia. And we used to listen to country music there. But it wasn’t something I got attached to. I loved it. I guess it was something born in me, to love country music.”
We talked about his first radio gigs on CHNS in Halifax, his guitar classes, his wife’s six-dollar-a-week job in a chocolate factory, and his struggle to make it, even locally, to a few dollars or a decent bed. The U.S., was the promised land. He remembers his father going across the border to look for work in Maine, and being admired for it. And it’s clear that the music of the dream, with its songs of work and family, love and travel, and God and the land, had an extra pull for a virtually homeless kid forced out of school at the age of 12. So Hank Snow followed the music south, just as the settlers once followed their dream.
Making it in America was all important. He starved, got into debt and teeter-tottered on the breadline for it, all the while running back over the border for work and reputation when the going got too tough to endure. Then, in 1950, with the help of Ernest Tubb, he made it to the Opry, and stayed. I asked him why he settled here. The first answer is obvious. “It was here that I made it. This was the heart of the business, and by 1950 anybody who had half an outlook at all could tell that this was going to develop with the popularity of the Opry. And I figgered it would just be so wonderful not to have to jump on an old train and ride 1,000 miles from Halifax to Montreal settin’ up, just to make a record.”
When I’m Movin’ On broke, what did he do with the money? What did he most want? I knew that he had had his share of big cars, even a 40foot cruiser he kept up on the Lakes. “A home, because we never had one. We was always kicked around, we was always having to move because we wouldn’t pay the rent, and we was always being yelled at, ‘Turn off the lights.’ And after ten o’clock, ‘You’re making too much noise.’ And this was my one big dream, to have a damn place where I could make as much noise as I damn well wanted to, or leave the lights burning all night, or go to the refrigerator and get something to eat whenever I wanted.” I asked if I could see it. We got up and walked through the microphones and racked guitars of the studio to the living quarters. And as soon as you see them, you realize that Hank Snow didn’t settle here just from sentimentality or for convenience. Down one end of the main room, hogging the wall, is a glass-fronted three-tier showcase, one of those display cabinets which in the southern porticoed mansion on the way out would sparkle with the French porcelain or Georgian silver Big Daddy brought back from Europe. It has all the superficies, the ruffled yellow satin and worshipful lighting, of bought status. But instead of show-off stuff too good to use in the kitchen or the dining room, which is what you’d expect, the case is crammed with the stuff thrown up by a life on the road: inlaid leather wallets, book matches, fans, gun handles, an old dart, penknives, baseballs, ashtrays, engraved lighters, a baseball cap, a message from Gorgeous George, commemorative plates, an old bottle of German beer, ornate pipes, a badge for contributing to the Opry Fund, cards, a cup or two, a collection of rock stones and a model of a Wells Fargo stagecoach. It’s as if these small possessions are a permanent testament to the apprenticeship Hank Snow served in country music, that whirligig of one-nighters and country fairs and weary days between the dollars. It’s as if, because his background isn’t authentic, he had to collect it piece by piece over the years, adding a shard here, a fragment there, to the archaeology of his own life. The same goes for the other things in the cabinet.
“When Min and I was married in 1936, I didn’t have enough money to buy a tuxedo, so I borrowed one from a friend, but I did have the money for the bow tie, and I have the bow tie in there. And when I played my first theatre engagement at the old Gaiety Theatre in Halifax for three dollars a day, three performances, which was a dollar each, my wife made me a little neckerchief in yeller and red, a little bandana. Took a pair of black dungarees and she sewed a white stripe of cotton up each side. And this is what I did my first performance in the theatre with. And I have the neckerchief in there. So that’s how I put a value on things. When I was 16, I used to dabble in painting a little bit, and I won first prize with one, in an exhibition in Lunenburg, where I used to sail out of, 65 miles west of Halifax. It’s important to have my life about me. Sentimental value.”
Very little survives in the case of his own family. Over a little black pasteboard-bound book, there’s a card neatly typed in curlicued capitals MY DAD’S BANK BOOK, but this is the only reference he makes anywhere to the man who left his family when Hank Snow was eight. Elsewhere, there’s a secondhand guitar he bought his mother in hard times. It’s plain that the only family he was born to without regret is the family of the Country, the notional family that makes every country singer repeat like a litany, “Good ole country people are the same everywhere.” And that’s why Hank Snow stays in Nashville. He stays to be near his family. And, as an entirely self-made man, he stays to be near the past he never had, but which he has built for himself in the cabinet and in his house out of the quids and quods and surds of the country heritage.
There’s “Uncle” Dave Macon’s silver dollar, Red Foley’s cuff links, comedian Rod Brasfield’s boots, Hawkshaw Hawkins’ belt, Jim Reeves’ gloves and neckerchief, Patsy Cline’s belt, Hank Williams’ tie, and two dogs and a pipe and a matchbox that belonged to Jimmie Rodgers. They’re all dead now. Some went far back to the days of the Carter Family and shapenote singing, and their deaths vacated country music to modernity and adulteration. Others died of stardom and the road, or the lingering diseases of early poverty. They survive as touchstone memories in Hank Snow’s house.
“If he sings you Muleskinner Blues, you’ll fall in love with him. Ain’t nobody sings it better’n him, save only one. And that’s Jimmie Rodgers,” declares a Kentucky bluegrass boy, propping up the motel bar and drinking his way through The Bartender’s Companion. He’s up to White Lady now, and fading fast. “Listen, I know ’bout country music. I proposed to my ole lady in the middle of the Hank Williams Story, ’n’ I know.” Though he died in 1933, before Hank Snow had recorded his first record, Jimmie Rodgers has always been important to him, the ideal father he never had. Rodgers was the man who invented the country success story. He was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1897, and saw the honky-tonks and hobo camps and work gangs of the south working as brakeman and conductor for the southern railroad companies. Then in 1925 he contracted tuberculosis. He took up music, first on tour in the mountains as a blackface comedian, then as a regular performer on an Asheville, North Carolina, radio station. He auditioned for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1927 at Bristol, Tennessee, and the myth of the country-boy-made-good began. For six years, until his death in New York’s Taft Hotel in 1933, the Singing Brakeman set the pattern of continuous travel and personal appearances that has survived until today.
Hank Snow first heard Moonlight And Skies in 1930. Like many good old country boys, he first learned guitar by playing along to the records on his T. Eaton Special. And his early style owes a lot to those Jimmie Rodgers songs of railroads and sweethearts and regret He even confesses that there are certain words he still can’t say except the Jimmie Rodgers way, like “dream” with a half-voiced z in the d. But he took something else from the records and from Rodgers' life, a vision of success being paid for in hard times, a sort of expiation through suffering. It was this that sustained him through near starvation in Wheeling, W'est Virginia, a disastrous attempt at the golden age in California, and $25 turnouts in Dallas. He still says, with pride, that he hates a quitter, and quotes anecdotes of perseverance from a book called Think And Grow Rich. It’s as if Rodgers presided over his success like a tutelary deity and Hank Snow, in return, has taken on the mantle of the succession. Next door to his son, Jimmy Rodgers Snow, born in a Salvation Army charity ward in Halifax, the Singing Ranger now lives out precisely the kind of life his idol might have lived had he survived, an august, retiring life full of the past and dedicated to preserving the country heritage. His house, with its old phonographs and saddles and plaques, is both a museum and a sacrifice.
On Opry nights, the streets of Nashville are as garish and plain as a painted woman. Along Broadway, the neon signs flash and beckon: PEOPLE’S
FURNITURE COMPANY, LINEBAUGH RESTAURANT (“Where The Opry Stars Meet To Eat”). The people mill about Opry Place in their blazers and bouffants and smart patent handbags, the men slicking down their hair in the storefront windows, the women waiting and wandering with the distracted air of someone who wants to get a souvenir at the Tennessee Gift Shop when all her old man wants is a beer at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Smart Nashville is a world away, eating off inlaid plates at the Captain’s Table, or else hobnobbing for office or clout at the Hermitage Hotel, where the State Democrats have their headquarters. But then the people of the Opry aren’t Belle Meade Country Club people. Their Country is not clipped and idealized into golf courses and riding rows.
The Grand Ole Opry is the longestrunning radio show in the United States, and over the years, through the Depression and on, it’s become the Astrodome, Madison Square Garden and Capitol Hill of country music. Every Friday and Saturday the campers and pickup trucks and hot rods converge on it like wasps to a jam jar. There’s a million miles on the clock for every 2,000 who come, and by 5.30, when the doors open, the streets are full of acted-out anticipation. From seven on, it’s rebel yells and stomping feet all the way. Backstage, it’s chaos, sidemen and stars and stagehands and guards swarming around, picking up a cup of lemonade from the barrel in the wings or just chatting about the family and friends and the last time on the road. And through the sponsored half hours it goes, from Beechnut Chewing Tobacco to Stevens Work Clothes to Shoney’s Big Boy Restaurants, five hours in all, five hours of music and dreams fulfilled. This is where Hank Snow came in, 22 years ago almost to the day, a diminutive Canadian picker and yodeler with a recommendation from Ernest Tubb. When the curtains part for the Kellogg’s half - hour at 9.30, the guitars are already strumming out the introduction to I’m Movin’ On, perhaps the most famous song in country and western history, and the audience is already yelling. The spotlight blinks on, and there he is, the ne plus ultra cowboy in a tailormade Hollywood vision of the Old West, in lime green with appliquéd roses and rhinestones alive with the light. ■