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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Petty's Hank, Deal's Patsy liven up Playhouse stage

Katie Deal sings Patsy Cline's hits and Jason Petty performs Hank Williams's standards in 'Country Royalty' at the Flat Rock Playhouse. Katie Deal sings Patsy Cline's hits and Jason Petty performs Hank Williams's standards in 'Country Royalty' at the Flat Rock Playhouse.

Jason Petty has been paying tribute to Hank Williams for 23 years, which is eight years longer than the country legend’s entire career, cut short at age 29 when he died in the back seat of a Cadillac on his way to a show.

Petty has won acclaim as the lead in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which he has played everywhere from Ryman Auditorium to Broadway to the Flat Rock Playhouse. He’s back on stage as Hank Williams at the Playhouse, along with Katie Deal performing the best of Patsy Cline’s discography. The two were last together on the Playhouse stage two years ago, in “Classic Nashville Roadshow.” They’re on stage through May 12 performing Country Royalty: A Homecoming Tribute to Country’s Legends.
As always, Petty is smooth, funny and up to the task of warbling, yodeling and flat-out channeling the country singer that he clearly admires. He’s made a career playing Hank, lifting up his songs and keeping the legend alive. It’s hard to find pure country of this vintage, even on the FM stations that claim to play a classic country format. Hank Williams’ work goes back to the very roots of country, of course. As Petty says, “Hank helped invent country music.”
Born in 1923 in Mt. Olive, Alabama, Hank got a $3.75 Sears Roebuck guitar from his mother, Lillian, a church organist. A mentor taught Hank that “you gotta sing to ‘em, not at ‘em” and the rest is country music history.
Petty brings that history to life, making it fun along the way.
The band showcases its considerable musical chops in the rockabilly-like “Move it on Over” and the Cajun-flavored “Jamalaya” and Petty shines brightest on the biggest challenges, especially “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which Hank wrote three years before his death.

Katie Deal’s no slouch, either, at nailing the tough-to-hit notes of another seminal country legend. The band returns for Act II without their black cowboy hats. Deal strolls on stage in a red cowgirl dress, later changing to a nightclub dress that Cline preferred as her career cranked up.
Like Petty, Deal shares interesting tidbits about the singer’s life and career, including the fact, when she first heard “Walking After Midnight,” “Like most of her songs, she didn’t like it until it became a hit.”
Deal seems to get better as she goes along and hits her stride exactly when we hope she will, with “I Fall to Pieces” and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” (Nelson had an ignominious start opening for Cline early on; “he’ll never make it,” a producer said.)
The only thing that keeps Deal’s Act II Patsy Cline tribute from equaling Petty’s Hank show is her delivery of the between-song narrative. She seemed a tad less natural and comfortable with the script, and that may be something that fixes itself as the show goes on.
The band of Eric Lewis on steel guitar, Mark Baczynski on fiddle, Alec Newman on bass, Rory Hoffman on keyboards and dobro and Nate Felty on drums deserves a big shoutout. From the slower ballads to rockin’ tunes like Cline’s “Gotta Lotta Rhythm in My Soul,” the players really add to the bigtime feel of the performance. These boys are tight.

The show wraps up with the stars and backup singers performing Hank's "I Saw the Light," a rousing benediction that brought a small but appreciative crowd to its feet on Friday night.
There’s always a melancholy lining in tribute shows to popular music legends, whether it’s Hank and Patsy, Jimi Hendricks, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin. We can’t help but imagine the decades of music Hank might have given us had he not committed slow suicide with a bottle. Same sad song for Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash at age 30.
At one point, Petty laments that New Year’s Day of 1953, when Hank died in the back seat of the Cadillac. But he adds: “His music will never die.” That comes from a credible source. If Jason Petty has anything to do with it, Hank and his music will live on.

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Country Royalty: A Homecoming Tribute to Country’s Legends runs through Sunday, May 12, on the Leiman Mainstage of the Flat Rock Playhouse. Performances are 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call 828-693-0731 or visit