The Day Hank Williams Died

Write a Country & Western hit in 20 minutes? David Lewis takes up the challenge

‘If a song can't be written in 20 minutes, it ain't worth writing,’ the late, great Hank Williams once said.

Phew. An hour-long songwriting workshop should give us plenty of time then.

The idea behind the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival’s ‘A Diamond From A Piece of Coal’ is simple – a group of strangers get together in Madison’s basement bar to co-write a song.

The group is in the capable hands of Shay Healey, who has been writing songs for 50 years. ‘They now refer to me as a veteran song writer, which is eminently preferable to a veteran abattoir worker,’ he muses.

Starting out writing folk songs in the 60s, he went to Nashville in the 70s, working as the front man in an Irish bar and restaurant.

Times were lean when he wrote and composed ‘What’s Another Year?’, giving it to a young Irish singer Johnny Logan. The rest is Eurovision history.

As well as winning the contest in 1980, the song went to Number 1 across Europe.

‘Four years of plenty,’ Healey laughs, before the royalty cheques and advances dried up. He then drifted into television and documentary making, before returning to songwriting.

Daniel O’Donnell, or as one American songstress christened him, Doodle O’Diddle, has recorded four of Healey’s songs.

‘If I had to write down exactly how I feel about things,’ O’Diddle has simpered. ‘Shay Healey has done it for me.’

Dressed in black leather jacket and black jeans, with glasses and close cropped white hair, Healey has myriad stories of good times, high times and wild times. A harpoon-wielding husband tracking down his runaway wife and lover sounds like particularly meaty song fodder.

Before starting the workshop, Healey asks if anybody in the group has co-written before. A few hands pop up. ‘Well, all your good suggestions will be thrown back in your face and your co-writers will dump all their sh*t on you.’

Swiftly on, then, to the scenario for our song. Aptly, it involves Hank Williams, country music icon and writer of such classics as ‘Cold, Cold Heart and ‘Crazy Heart’.

Williams lived a turbulent life and, like many in his genre, developed serious problems with alcohol and painkillers. On New Year’s Eve 1953, the 29-year-old got into a Cadillac in Knoxville, Tennessee, having had a shot of vitamin B12 and morphine.

The car was driven by a 17-year-old black kid, Charlie Carr, who, after pulling in at an all-night gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, discovered that Williams was dead.

Healey sparks off the creative process, offering up a line to be used somewhere in the song: The band was playing Auld Lang Sang the night Hank Williams died.

We soon get bogged down in the details, however, with some confusion over the shot of vitamin B12. Was it for health or for kicks? It was to boost Williams’ immune system, apparently.

As Healey explains later: ‘Every rock star in the world still gets shots of B12.' They think it’ll give them a boost before the show.’

The theme of ‘last shots’ is explored. Last shot at fame, last shot of whisky, last shot of morphine. A man, with what sounds like a thick Russian accent, drawls: ‘Hees heart vas frozen. He tried to av a shot to varm it up.’

Healey advises us to set the scene and get into the action early. The dark, the driving snow, the big car, the drugs, the drink. The atmosphere is earnest and supportive, definitely more country ballad than punk rock.

A delicious frisson of irony goes round when we learn that Williams’ last song was ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’, with an unfinished song found in the Cadillac, ‘Then Came the Fateful Day’. This was a man who knew his days were numbered.

Tony, a silver-haired gentleman in a sweater emblazoned with the words 'Oxford University', suggests writing the song in 3/4 time to give it a more downbeat feel.

We debate from whose point of view the song should be written. The driver Charlie? A fan who hears the news the next day? Hank himself?

A loud woman in a fur coat, wearing a clatter of silver jewellery, bursts in late. The group dynamic is somewhat upset. The scenario has to be explained again.

‘Why can’t we be in the mind of a woman?’ the new arrival demands. The group murmurs its assent.
Various lines and rhymes ebb and flow. Snow. Radio. Ohio.

Every so often Healey lobs in a lyrical firework. The night was black as the Cadillac as Charlie pulled away.

He’s good at this. ‘I like that,’ says Finbar, strumming a small guitar and letting rip in a gravelly country twang.

Ralph Murphy arrives, another famous songwriter, also wearing a black leather jacket. Is this the uniform for chart-topping writers?

‘He had a Number 2 with Cliff Richard at Christmas,’ Healey says by way of introduction.

‘We’ll forgive you for that,’ cracks Finbar, engaging mouth before brain.

In the end, an hour to nail down a whole song proves rather ambitious. Too many people, too many ideas, too many points of views. All are agreed, however, that the process has been rewarding.

Healey suggests that we go home and have a crack on our own, then email him the results. ‘It’ll be lawyers at dawn!’ he says gleefully.

Fellow songwriter Murphy calls from the sidelines. ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ.’

You know he ain’t joking.