There’s a sparse poetry in Hank Williams’s lyrics that separates “the Hillbilly Shakespeare” from his fellow jukebox heroes of the ’40s. His was the poetry of the honky-tonk’s quiet men: the last American cowboys, the stoic vets, the post-Depression wallflowers. Men for whom that lonesome whistle blows, who hear robins weep, who dream about mama and never knew daddy. Men whose heart will always fall at the feet of the old flame they pass on the street.
It’s a cowboy poetry that speaks to Ward Hayden — that much is clear from listening to the 34-year-old sing Williams’s tunes.
Hayden doesn’t cover these songs; he shakes with them, almost bleeds them. They roll through him like prayer through a Southern preacher who just happens to sound like a cross between Chris Isaak and Lyle Lovett.
Hayden is the frontman for the Boston-based Girls Guns and Glory, a roots-rock quartet rounded out by guitarist Chris Hersch, bassist-pianist Paul Dilley, and drummer Josh Kiggans. Winner of a 2013 Boston Music Award, GG&G isn’t a tribute act, having recorded four albums of originals. But each year on the anniversary of Williams’s death — Jan. 1, 1953 — Hayden & Co. pay homage to one of their greatest influences with a series of rollicking tribute concerts.
Joined by Jason Anick on fiddle, the band rings in ’16 with its Sixth Annual Tribute to Hank Williams in Cambridge tonight, and continues to celebrate tomorrow in Fall River. Hayden, a Scituate native, talked about his passion for Williams’s work in a recent interview.
Q. So what sparked your love of Hank Williams’s music?
A. I’d grown up with Williams, but his music didn’t resonate with me until I was 20 or so. I remember being 4 or 5 years old, and “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” was on an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter commercial or something. It was background to me. In high school, I was much more interested in punk and ska, a lot of stuff happening on the local Boston music scene.
Then I borrowed my mom’s Hank Williams tapes one day when I was in college, and it turned me on to a whole new style of song. The songs spoke to me in a way that no other style of music had done before. He was saying things that I didn’t know could be put into words. Around that time, I’d had my first heartbreak, and suddenly, his lyrics came alive — the resentment, the disappointment, the despair. In a lot of ways it was cathartic, to know someone else had been there. To drive around and put on his music, you don’t feel quite so alone.
Q. What are a few of your favorite Hank songs?
A. I really like “The Old Log Train” (a tribute to his father.) He grew up not knowing his father too well. There’s a song that Hank didn’t write but recorded, “Rocking Chair Money,” that resonated with me because of the way he played it — you can hear the groundwork of rockabilly rock ’n’ roll. He didn’t live to see the day, but in a lot of ways, he was the grandfather of that style of music.
Q. You were touring France during the Paris attacks.
A. We were a few hours outside Paris while that was going down, playing a concert in Bourg-en-Bresse. The day following the attacks we had a concert slated in La Balme-de-Sillingy and had about 150 cancellations. It was awesome that 100 or so people came out who weren’t going to be scared. From moment one, there was a connection between us and the people in the audience, this feeling that we’re all in this together. By the time we played [the Williams hit] “I Saw the Light,” people were on their feet. It was unifying.
Q. We tend of think of honky-tonk country as uniquely American. Are there lots of Hank fans in Europe?
A. This was our ninth European tour, we go often to France and Spain, and people were hugely supportive of country and rock. One thing that impressed me in Spain is that 1950s American rock ’n’ roll never fell out of fashion — we’ve walked into clubs in Spain where Chuck Berry is on and people are on the floor doing “The Twist.” France leans more toward country. They lump our style of country in with modern country, but we’re not going to argue, because they dig it.
Q. You also played Gillette Stadium Dec. 20 for a Patriots pre-game concert.
A. It was a blast. It was pretty cold, but was so much fun and the Pats won. This is our seventh time doing a pre-game concert, and they’ve won every time we’ve played. I like to think we have something to do with that.
GIRLS GUNS AND GLORY
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Friday
Interview was condensed and edited. Lauren Daley can be reached at email@example.com.