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Photos courtesy of Jason Petty

Jason Petty performs as Hank Williams in "Hank and My Honky-Tonk Heroes."

Jason Petty has learned so much about Hank Williams in his 17-year career as a tribute performer to the patron saint of country music that he could write a book.

But why would he do that when he could sing Williams' life story instead?

"I was amazed when I started studying the man, with how much he had accomplished," said Petty, who brings his tribute, "Hank and My Honk-Tonk Heroes," to Bakersfield audiences on Jan. 9.

"I've always been a history buff; I've always wanted to know the whys and the hows to the music."

Petty started his own career performing at Opryland, an amusement park he referred to as a "college" for performers, especially in country music. Among other roles, Petty was part of a one-hour tribute to the history of country music.

"My look, my sound, they pegged me to do a 20- or 30-second spot as Hank Williams singing 'Your Cheatin' Heart,'" Petty said.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. A producer of the show "Always Patsy Cline" saw Petty perform and recruited the singer to appear as Williams in a similar show about the legendary and legendarily troubled star.

In 1996, Petty found himself the star of the bio-drama "Lost Highway" at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

After touring nationally, the show, with Petty, ended up at the off-Broadway Manhattan Ensemble Theater, and then in the Little Shubert for an extended run, rave reviews and an Obie Award for Petty.

"I didn't choose to be Hank Williams; he chose me," said Petty, paraphrasing a comment he got from another legend, the late comedian Minnie Pearl, after she saw his tribute.

"I've taken those words to heart every day of my life," he said.

When Petty stumbled into the job of a lifetime, he researched Williams, the man, as well as the musician.

The singer talked to everyone who knew Williams, including Pearl, Roy Acuff, even Williams' sidemen, Don Helms and Jerry Rivers. He also went to Williams' hometown of Montgomery, Ala., and talked to neighbors, relatives and fans.

"I never knew a man could live such an incredibly action-packed life in 29 years," Petty said.

The performer learned enough to write his own show, weaving Williams' songs with the stories behind them.

"Almost half the songs he wrote were of a religious nature, under the pseudonym of Luke the Drifter," said Petty, whose show delves into the importance of church music, along with the blues Williams learned from street musician Rufus Payne and the work of country music pioneers such as Acuff, Ernest Tubb, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

"(Williams) took all of these different factors and blended them into what we call modern country music."

The first part of Petty's show is a tribute to those earlier pioneers, featuring songs made famous by those performers. The second focuses on Williams himself and his music; the third looks at the musicians who were in turn influenced by Williams -- Elvis Presley, George Jones, Alan Jackson and others.

"Hank and My Honky-Tonk Heroes" is the result of Petty's 17-year relationship with Williams' legacy, and a labor of love, not only for Williams and his music, but for his audiences -- another thing he learned from Minnie Pearl.

"She told me, 'Just love the audience, and they'll love you back.'"