The following article, which first appeared in The Robesonian in 2014, won a third place award for Arts and Entertainment Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association.
LUMBERTON, N.C. — Jason Petty remembers the first time he heard a Hank Williams tune.
“I was 6 or 7 years old, riding in the car with my father,” he said. “One of the songs he used to sing to me was ‘Hey, Good Looking.’ That’s one of the first songs I remember hearing. It was the kind of thing that really leaves an imprint.”
Those serenades from Dad were a harbinger for Petty, who is now considered the nation’s top Hank Williams impersonator.
His take on the country music legend has won praise from The New York Times, Rolling Stone and USA Today. Even musicians who were close to Williams have heralded Petty as a second coming.
“I played with Hank for many years and I was his best friend,” said the late Don Helms, a member of Williams’s backing band, the Drift- ing Cowboys. “No one in my time has come closer to Hank ’s look, sound and natural charisma than Jason.”
Petty will don Williams’s signature 10-gallon hat and music note-patterned suit for a concert Saturday at the Carolina Civic Center. His opening act will be Carolyn Martin, a Grammy-nominated Patsy Cline impersonator.
A native of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, Petty began his career entertaining tourists in 1996 as part of a country music sideshow at the erstwhile Opryland theme park in Nashville.
“Since I was tall and had that look to me, I was asked to portray Hank Williams in one of the shows,” he said. “That prompted me to really study his music.”
At Opryland, he caught the attention of Randal Myler, a theater director who was adapting Williams’s life story into a jukebox musical. After accepting Myler’s invitation to audition for the lead role, Petty was asked to play an impromptu concert for the show’s backers at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium.
“It’s tough to play for 15 or 20 people in suits taking notes,” he said. “It was the weirdest show I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the greatest because it kick-started my career.”
Petty landed the part and “Lost Highway” debuted in 2003 to positive reviews. Much of the praise went to Petty, who received an Obbie Award for his performance.
The production, which often called for as many as eight shows a week, took a toll on Petty. He left “Lost Highway” to become a touring tribute artist.
At 43, Petty has outlived his inspiration by more than a decade. Williams was 29 years old when he died of a heart attack in 1953. The troubled star was found surrounded by empty beer cans and unfinished song lyrics in the backseat of a Cadillac.
Williams left behind a legacy at odds with itself. He was the winking cowboy troubadour behind infectious trifles like “Move It On Over” and “Hey, Good Looking.” He was also the self-destructive outlaw behind timeless tearjerkers like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
“He had that Saturday night, Sunday morning personality that all of us have,” Petty said. “There’s this beautiful simplicity to his music that speaks to the heart of the common man and woman. I tell people that Hank was responsible for many men being able to cry in public. They would go into a bar and order a beer and a Hank song, then they would commence to cry in their beer.”
Tom Hiddleston will soon try to loosen Petty’s hold on the market for Hank Williams impersonators. The English actor recently signed on to play Williams in “I Saw the Light,” a biopic due out in 2016.
Petty says he isn’t worried about the competition.
“For me, it’s just a great honor to help people fall in love with Hank’s music all over again,” he said. “Nobody gets rich doing what I do. You show me a Hank Williams impersonator who says he’s rich, and I’ll show you a liar. We do it for the love.”