The Matt in the hat
Already a specialist in songs of darkness and brooding, The The’s Matt Johnson has decided to make an album of Hank Williams covers — albeit in his own inimitable style. Craig McLean saddles up for the ride.
Last time we heard from The The‘s Matt Johnson. he was drifting by the pool in Los Angeles. just after playing four nights with Depeche Mode in the local enormodome. and just before playing a mighty gig at The Barrowland (‘That's my favourite venue in Britain. that. Johnny came on stage. didn‘t he'.’ Yeah. that was a great show' ).
At that stage. he was still humming and hawing over whether to do an El’ of Hank Williams songs or. as he had a shortlist of nineteen songs. turn it into a more expansive — and hence more fitting -- tribute to The Man. ‘A great modern American poet.‘ Johnson murmured then. ‘The amount of lives that he touched...‘
And for the last year Williams‘s life and work have been rubbing up hard against those of Johnson. The erstwhile demon dog of inner-city blues has delved into the dark stuff surrounding the troubled 2‘) years of the most fabled of country music's host of real-life legends. The man who wrote ‘Your Cheatin~ Heart and ‘Hey Good Lookin“. The man who gave the backwoods to the world. The man who was found dead in murky circumstances in the back of a car on New Year's Day. l‘)53. just as his records and celebrated performances at the Grand Ole ()pry were making him an American icon to rival the looming rock 'n' roll revolution.
‘I just love singing his songs. It’s a respectful, affectionate attempt to capture his spirit. This is done out of love.’
So. upfront of the next The The album (Johnson stans work in May) and a planned tribute to bluesman Robert Johnson. Johnson put together Hunky Punky. ‘ljust love singing his songs.‘ he says now. ‘lt‘s a respectful. affectionate attempt to capture his spirit. This is done out of love.‘
Hunky Punky's eleven tracks are a sympathetic and — given the gulfof experience. generation. culture and character that separates the two artists — a surprisingly successful homage to the man from Alabama. Johnson. well aware of the culture clash that resulted when the 24-year-old Elvis Costello went to Nashville to record his Alums] Blue album
with \etcran country figure George Jones. shied clear of such ‘mcthod‘ approaches. He didn‘t want to be a
tourist. ()r a pasticbe-merchant. He just wanted to be
true to the legacy
‘()ftcn when people have covered his songs in the past they‘ve emphasised the light side.‘ he reckons. ‘but there is a real dark side -— the man was an alcoholic. a manic depressive. he may even have commited suicide. they're not quite sure. the coroner‘s verdict was never really satisfactory. The history has been so rewritten and glossed over that people forget that . . . well. not forget. they just don't know what he was like. I‘m not saying I do. but 1 read as much as I could. listened to all the stuff.’
The sound of Hunky l’unkv is unmistakably The The. filled with whispered unease and claustrophobic blues. The songs. though. are defiantly Hank. the elemental veritics of "fear In My Beer" and ‘Can't Get You Off My Mind‘ ringing down the decades
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with a clarity that quickly cuts to the chase. But how to strip away the sleaze. corn. dust. fluff and trash that have settled on the Williams legacy? How to accurately pay homage to a lionised — and so. obscured — poor southern farm-boy who went on to move millions?
Johnson shrugs. ‘The best way is just to listen to his stuff. That‘s the closest you‘ll get to him. I‘m sure members ofthe country fraternity feel resentment. but I think thisjust proves the power of his songs. that he can affect different cultures. different countries. different age groups. lt‘s timeless stuff.‘
‘There are so many myths. lies and legends. But the music‘s where the truth lies.‘ And ifthe good Lord's willing and the creek don't n'se. Hunky l’unky should bring the truth and beauty of Hank Williams to a whole new audience.
Hunky Punky is released on I 3 Feb. A single. ‘1 Sun- 'I’lie Lie/HI is our mm:
The List 27 Jan-9 Feb IWS 33