Music has many superpowers. It inspires us. It heals, unites, moves us to love and grieve and hope and worship. But perhaps its greatest power is its ability to empathize. Music sees us. It meets us where we are, always, with the exact right song at the exact right moment. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re feeling a certain way until a lick of music comes along and flips a light on for us.
Science now teaches us that in those moments when we realize, this song is exactly how I feel, a chemical reaction is triggered inside us that is precisely the same emotional alchemy which occurs when we are hugged by a friend, or in a mother when she nuzzles her newborn baby.
Hank Williams, born 100 years ago in Mount Olive Alabama, might have intuited this. Like music itself, ol’ Hank had many superpowers too, but his most important contribution to humanity might have been what his long-time producer Fred Rose captured in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary:
“Hank Williams had the guts to put into words what we were all thinking and feeling but too embarrassed to say.”
Back then, and it’s only a sight better now, society lacked male role modeling of emotional vulnerability. Keep a stiff upper lip. Be strong and silent. Settle disputes with your fists. But Hank laid himself bare for us, and taught us that it’s alright to acknowledge our sadness, our pain, our failures. Millions of people in 1940s America heard a Hank song and felt permission to think, that is exactly how I feel.
Coincidentally, it was in the 1940s that the American psychologist Abraham Maslow first theorized that the human experience was governed by a hierarchy of needs. At the base of the pyramid are sustenance and shelter. Right above that? Recognition. Feeling seen and loved. A sense of belonging.
The Maslows of today tell us that we’re living through a crisis of belonging. It’s a bitter irony of course. We exist in a technological landscape that allows us to chronicle every aspect of our lives for others to consume. We jump up and down and wave our hands and beg to be seen. But most people report feeling more invisible and isolated than ever before, that they lack meaningful connections to other people.
And it’s not just social media and technology. Society is in a scornful season. Preachers, politicians, and other profiteers are constantly telling us to be invisible, shouting that some people don’t warrant the same rights and protections as others, that they don’t belong, that their lives don’t matter.
In this moment, music is needed more than ever. It sees us. It recognizes us. It hugs us and reassures us that what we’re feeling is ok.
One of my favorite songs from today’s country music rebellion is Tyler Childers’ “Play Me a Hank Song.” It’s from his debut album Bottles and Bibles, which arrived in 2011 like a scout, heralding what was bubbling up in those Appalachian hills, and on the prairies of the North American West, in Texas and elsewhere.
In the song, Childers touches on music’s divine power to empathize. The heartbroken narrator acknowledges “there’s a whole class of people, just as lonesome as me,” and wails, “So play me a Hank song, to ease my pain//Because it helps to know someone, felt the same damn way.”
It helps to know someone felt the same damn way.
Resilience has always been an important thread in country music. It is part of the inheritance the genre owes Black music, part of what Hank learned from Tee Tot Payne. Recognition steels and fortifies us, helps us march on and overcome.
In this, Childers’ song isn’t a wail or a lament. It’s a prayer.
Lord, play me a Hank song, to ease my pain. Because it helps to know someone felt the same damn way.