During the month of September 2014, our house in Tennessee became the base camp for Tom Hiddleston’s steady transformation into Hank Williams. I’d been hired by a film company—-whose vision of shining a gritty light on the life and times of Hank Williams piqued my interest no end—-to produce the music and assist their leading man in finding his way into the heart of one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
The classically trained British actor arrived in Nashville on the fourth day of the month and the very next day climbed on a tour bus bound for Michigan and the Wheatland Music Festival, his traveling companions Claudia, myself, and a four-piece band consisting of Jerry Roe, Byron House, Pat Buchannan and Steve Fishell. Just minutes before taking part in an afternoon workshop with Sarah Jarosz, whose permission I had sought first, I asked Tom if he’d like to join us onstage and sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a Hank Williams song I’d heard him practicing on the bus. I was surprised when he said yes and skillfully performed the tune before what must have been 1500 people. Later that night, with my band on the main stage, and with very little urging from me, he rendered a joyful version of “Move It On Over.” Afterward, brimming with delight, he admitted, rather boyishly, that he’d never in his life performed with a band and had loved it.
On a typical day in September, I watched him sit for a wardrobe fitting, read through four hours worth of key scenes with the director and leading lady, spend another two hours with a dialect coach, and then, in order to lose the weight needed to look Hank Williams gaunt on screen, run seven wicked miles over hilly Tennessee terrain. With those chores done, he’d then commit to six more hours of singing, over and over again, a very hard to master song like ”Lovesick Blues.” And then, when he finally unlocked the mystery of yodeling the blues, hillbilly style, and was treated to a playback of his performance responded by saying “I can do it better, let me go again.” Then came a late dinner, wolfed down before giving in to a few hours sleep. After nearly a month spent collaborating with this gifted artist, I’m as respectful of the man’s work ethic as I’m mystified by his transformational skills. Without a doubt, the filmmakers chose the right actor for the job.
And, incidentally, having Ry Cooder as a duet partner on “God I’m Missing You” on the Americana Music Awards Show was pretty damned mystical as well. Rodney