photograph: johnny knight
Watching Georgia native Matthew Brumlow channel the late, great country crooner Hank Williams in American Blues Theater’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway, directed by Damon Kiely, is an eerie experience. It’s not just that the actor has radically transformed his body for the role, dieting to near-skeletal thinness to portray the singer who was so skinny he could “change clothes in the barrel of a shotgun,” Brumlow has also perfected Wiliams’s haunting, lonesome falsetto.
Chicago caught up with Brumlow between shows for a conversation about how he prepared to play the deeply troubled star, Williams’s roots in the blues, and what authentic country music means today.
You’ve radically altered your appearance to portray Hank Williams. Have you been on a starvation diet?
Not really, although people have called asking me if I’m OK. I only dropped around 10 pounds for the show, but I was pretty lean to begin with, so it really shows. Also, our costume designer (Sarah E. Ross) is amazing. The costumes elongate me making me look even narrower.
Williams died at 29, after years of hard drinking and pain pill addiction. Was it tough to portray someone who essentially spent the years in the spotlight self-destructing?
I looked at dozens of pictures of Williams to make sure I got it right. He had undiagnosed Spina Bifada, so he always had a pronounced sort of slump, that just got worse as he got older and his drinking and drug abuse got out of control. I clench my jaw, breath in a certain ways to make my cheeks look hollow, and invert my chest cavity —all these things help make me look unhealthy. Physically, the show is exhausting. If I’m doing it right, I should be bone tired by the curtain call.
What about Williams’ distinctive sound? I think he may be the only vocalist in history who could make a yodel sound utterly heartbreaking.
I didn’t want to do an impression of Hank Williams. I wanted to sound like him, but I wanted it to come from a place of authenticity, not mimicry. When I listen to Williams and think about the people he was singing to and about, those are my people. My family. Hardworking. Down to earth. My grandfather was a grocery clerk at the Winn Dixie. My grandmother had to drop out of (elementary) school to take care of her brothers and sisters after her mother died. Like Williams, my grandparents were lower-class southerners who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and through sheer effort were able to work their way into the middle class.
Williams didn’t have the purest, most polished voice; he was raw and rough around the edges. He understood the blues at a young age injected it into [his] music because it was what he lived.
What do you think Williams would have made of today’s so-called cross-over country artists like Taylor Swift?
If he were still alive, he’d be hanging out with Willie Nelson.
American Blues Theater’s production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway continues through Oct. 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $19—$49. americanbluestheater.com.