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Bringing Hank to life

Published Jan. 7, 2007, in the Opelousas Daily World

EUNICE — Walking down a sidewalk in downtown Eunice Saturday afternoon, one could hear a sound above all other noises of the city — the music of an era long gone.

Emanating from the city's historic Liberty Theatre, the songs that country music legend Hank Williams made famous more than half a century ago were being recreated by a group of musicians with the aim of paying tribute to the star.

This is the seventh year Terry Huval and his Jambalaya Cajun Band have joined with other country and Cajun musicians to put on a fundraising concert in honor of Williams. As Huval explained in his note to this year's audience, printed on the back of the event's program, the band's primary goal is to preserve Williams' music and make it sound as authentic as possible.

"Our job is to play those classic songs just like they were originally recorded — except without the scratches from those old 78 RPM records," he wrote.

With their careful attention to detail, such as procuring instruments from William's time period, including a 1949 steel guitar, the musicians took the packed theater of listeners back in time.

Two sisters Val Stephens and Lorraine Lauret traveled to Eunice from the Baton Rouge area with a group of six other family members to see the show. To them, the music was a slice of life from simpler times when, as Stephens explained, people didn't think twice about getting together and dancing the night away.

"The musicians did such a great job with the show," she said. "You can close your eyes and see it all again."

Lauret, who just recently moved back home to Louisiana after living in Connecticut for much of her life, said this show was part of her "tour of the state" to catch up and experience Louisiana again.

Lauret said she was especially impressed with some of the young performers in the show. While members of the Jambalaya Cajun Band have been playing music for decades, guest vocalists Hugh Harris, Courtney Granger and Chris Malpass are all young men, who in the show, used their young vocal talents to recreate Williams' style. Williams reached the peak of his career between the age of 25 and 29, when he died.

"He (Williams) died at a time in his life that in all his recordings, these young men's voices sound like him," Lauret said. "When they're singing, I can hear his voice in their voices."

Malpass, a North Carolina native, who drove 13 hours to perform in the show, was a show stealer at times, arousing large rounds of applause from the audience with Williams classics like "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin.'"

Although Malpass was born decades after the era of traditional country music had passed, his grandfather's influence lead him to love that style of music.

"My granddaddy taught me how to play," Malpass said. "He passed away when I was 11, and since then I've just been doing what I do. I feel that country music has lost its heart and soul since the old days. There's too much money involved now and not enough feeling in the songs."

But Malpass said Williams' songs were all about feelings. When he sings Williams' songs, he tries to put himself in Williams' shoes.

"I try to feel what he would have felt when he sang those songs," Malpass said.

The show included more than 30 songs Williams recorded during his short life. As Huval explained, some were mandatory hits, while others were more obscure.

"There's a certain cadre of Hank Williams hits that we had to play like 'Jambalaya' and 'Hey Good Lookin'," Huval said. "Williams had a catalogue of around 128 studio-recorded songs, but he had around another 100 songs that were recorded with just him and his guitar, and they never made it to the studio. We tried to include some of those as well."

Huval said in the seven years the concert has taken place, some of the same people come back each year to experience the Williams music they are so devoted to.

"Hank Williams' music tends to hold a special place in people's hearts, because Williams didn't have to go through the indignity of fitting into the Elvis era," Huval said.

"Williams' music is trapped in a capsule. He lived in a time in which country music was king, and there was no erosion of feeling. You didn't have to conform to the latest fad.

"He was a tremendous songwriter. He took complex human emotion and brought it down to a common denominator so everyone could say, 'I've felt that, I've been there, or I could imagine being there.'"

Huval said the proceeds from annual concerts benefit Eunice's Liberty Theatre. Last year's concert brought in about $5,000, he said.