Jason Petty's portrayal of Hank Williams on the Broadway stage in "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," earned him an "Obie Award for "Outstanding Actor", yet he still remains committed to his southern roots.
"The very first song I ever remember hearing was "Hey, Good Looking", said Petty. "I was about three-years-old at the time. We were coming home from church. My dad was driving and he started singing that song.
"The next thing is, that, just like Hank, I was singing in the church choir. That's where I really got started."
Born and raised in the small middle Tennessee town of Manchester, he began spending a lot of time on his grandparents' farm in Hickman County, Tennessee, after his Mother's sudden passing when he was only seven. On this farm, he began tending fields and helping raise and take care of the livestock. This is where he learned what was important in life...family. He attended church with his grandparents where the entire membership numbered 18. These people were earthly, grounded, faithful people who loved music as part of their lives. Gospel and country music became a part of the fabric of their lives and it became deeply important to Jason as well. His Grandmother, Fannie Mayberry, would swing on the front porch and shell peas while singing 'Blessed Assurance.' His Grandfather, Dan, let him ride on the tractor with him while plowing and would sing Hank Williams' songs to him.
"We didn't know it at the time, but we were poor," continued Petty. "I relate to Hank because of our similar lifestyle. We had cows, pigs, and grew most of our food, but the only cash crop was two acres of tobacco my grandfather planted each year. I remember one year he was paid $8,000 for it. Man, there was so much joy and shouting, you would have thought we had struck a goldmine."
Even though he started his professional career as an actor, he has been singing since 1990, when he went to Opryland.
"I've met lots and lots of fans, friends, and former members of his Drifting Cowboys, and even Billie Jean," said Petty. "When I first went to Opryland I was mostly a "gofer" for the other big stars. As I began to sing more and more, I got to meet the big stars. Faron Young told me a lot of stories about Hank, even about how he took Bilie Jean (who was Faron Young's girlfriend at the time)away from him. There was a television show, "Country Music USA" that I appeared on and traveled with."
While at Opryland, Jason was asked to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and was first introduced onto that hallowed stage by the King Of Country Music, Roy Acuff. In the fall of 1995, Jason was asked to do a reading of a play about Hank Williams for the Ryman Auditorium, since he been singing many of Hank's songs at Opryland.
"The Music Director at my church had actually recommended me," said Petty. "After some of the Opry regulars and Hank's former band members heard me sing, they asked me to sing "Lovesick Blues", but my voice was a little too low. Hank had a lower voice, and he could just pull it up in his throat. Finally, they settled on "Your Cheatin' Heart". They asked if I could yodel, and I told them I had never tried. They told me to learn to yodel, because they liked what they heard, and felt like other people would like it too.
"They hired me that very day
"Billy Walker and Don Helms gave me lots of good advice on my singing and how to act, but I just shrugged it off. It wasn't until later, that I realized people did want to listen to me.
The "Lost Highway" ran for two years at the Ryman Auditorium, which is the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. During this two year run, Jason met and became friends with many of Williams old musicians and friends. It was while at the Ryman that Jason would meet and fall in love with his wife, Hope.
After completing seven straight years of touring with "Lost Highway", Jason decided to write a show based upon all the people he met and befriended who knew Hank. Some of those included Grand Ole Opry stars, musicians and friends and family of Williams.
That first show was 'Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes.' Jason has gathered many stories and was asked to write a book...but decided to write shows honoring those grand legends of country music and their songs. It has become his life's calling to do so and will continue until they drag him off the stage. Jason currently has seven shows touring about the history of country music and he believes that the stories behind the artists and songs are just as important as the songs themselves. He believes it gives the audience a greater appreciation and admiration for the artists and their impact on people's lives. He harkens back to his grandparents farm in his memory while on stage and tries to bring that sense of family to all his shows.
"I started out as an actor," continued Petty. "The role of an actor is like a coat. You put it on and you take it off. I relay the stories and songs about Hank and his life, because Don Helms and others told me I should do it. Those early band members told me all those great stories about him that were true.
"Thank goodness, no one tried to give Hank singing lessons. They wouldn't have worked. His songs and stories were honest. They came from within himself, and told of his condition. He loved God. He knew that he had done wrong and asked forgiveness.
"Billie Jean said that just before he left, when things were beginning to unravel and he had turned back to alcohol and painkillers, she asked him where he was going? "Hank is going to see the preacher," he said. "It's about time I got right with God."
"Many of Hank's songs are a cry to God. There are some lyrics in "Alone and Forsaken" that makes me shiver to the bone. He would write down his thoughts, not just talk about them."
"Fans can expect honesty and raw emotion from me, just like Hank would do it. I'm not coming to Georgiana to impersonate Hank, but to honor him. I want to sing to the people, not at them. I will be there to honor, not impersonate."