Derek Smith plays Hank Williams for a Williamston Theatre fundraiser Saturday
Wednesday, Jan. 11 — No need to sing the blues when you can sing along to the ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ this weekend at Williamston Theatre, where Derek Smith is reprising his uncannily accurate portrayal of Hank Williams one more time to help raise revenue for the theater.
Although the character is based on Smith’s original performance in Lansing Community College’s 2009 production of “Lost Highway: The Hank Williams Story,” director John Lepard says Saturday evening is more about the music. “It’s as if you were taken back to a year when Hank Williams was around and was doing a concert,” says Lepard clarifying “It’s not the show where he starts drinking and falls off the stage and dies eventually. It’s a fun evening of back-in-the-good-old-days when it was a nice concert and everyone was happy.”
Smith explains that while the concept for this concert took root during the play’s initial run, he initially turned down the role.
“I went into it with a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “My first reaction was, ‘No way. I’m not going to do it. It’s way too much time.’’” Smith says he reconsidered after deciding that he could do the part better than the actor cast in his place. Even so, Smith is quick to understate his credentials. “I don’t think there [were] a lot of people who went out for the role. I don’t want to make it sound like there were 20 Hank Williams impersonators and I was the best. I was the only one there that night.”
Although Smith had never acted in a play before, he had, in a sense, conducted considerable character research in the years leading up to his theatrical debut. Some time before, Smith was asked to conduct a Hank Williams seminar after his band Honest D and the Steel Reserve made a name for itself performing Williams-inspired honky tonk.
When he is performing as Williams, Smith says he devotes considerable time to capturing nuance. “I really try to do my best to nail his tone and phrasing,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of people out there doing the Hank Williams songs and they kind of overdo the twang and they don’t get the phrasing right and they’re just banging away on the guitar. He was really the full package. He sometimes gets lumped into standard white cowboy stuff, but it’s really a different feel. It’s almost as much black blues music as it is white cowboy music, and sometimes people just lump it all together.”
For Lepard as a director, the goal is to leave Smith alone.
“He’s one of those natural talents that you don’t want to mess with too much,” Lepard says. “He’s got a real grasp of [Williams’] rhythm, the way he talks — the colloquialisms that Hank Williams uses, Derek just uses on his own anyway. So it’s not real stretch moving Derek from Derek to Hank Williams. It’s like, why would you push him any other direction? He knows exactly where he is.”
'An Evening with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys'
8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14
122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston