With his tall, lanky frame and lean face, Jason Petty bears an uncanny resemblance to country icon Hank Williams.
“I do feel a personal kinship to Hank because I have portrayed him for so long,” acknowledged Petty, who won an Obie Award in 2003 for playing Williams in an off-Broadway production of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” He’s also paid tribute to the late legend in his shows “Hank & My Honky Tonky Heroes” and “Country Royalty: A Tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.”
“Hank is considered the single most influential person in the history of country music because of the songs he wrote, the life he lead,” Petty said. “I wanted to delve into the songs and how they were written and when they were written. … That’s what makes my shows different from anyone else’s.”
Petty salutes another chapter of country music history in his show “The Swingin’ Cowboys: A Tribute to the Music of the Great American West,” Saturday at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.
Born and raised in Manchester, Tenn., Petty spent his summers on his grandparents’ 200-acre farm in farm in nearby Primm Springs — listening to his grandmother sing gospel music and his grandfather croon country songs.
His father, meanwhile, was a fan of the singing cowboys who rode across the silver screen in the 1930s and '40s.
“It ran the musical gamut,” said Petty, whose childhood tastes ranged from Elvis Presley to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne.
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville graduate rediscovered country and western music in the late 1980s and early '90s — around the same time he got a job at the now-closed Opryland amusement park in suburban Nashville. (He worked at Opryland from 1990 to 1995.)
Petty’s yodeling skills landed him a role as Williams in a musical showcase.
That’s how he captured the attention of Randal Myler, the director and co-writer of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” who cast him as the title country star.
During his two-year run starring in “Lost Highway” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry, Petty rubbed elbows with many of the people who had known and worked with Williams, including friends, family members and former band mates.
Petty grew particularly close to Don Helms, Williams’ steel guitar player, who spoke about the country icon’s impoverished childhood and tempestuous first marriage.
“Even the regular poor kids made fun of him because he was dirt poor” and not particularly “book smart,” Petty said of Williams. “Rubbing elbows with big stars like Bob Hope, he always felt inferior because of the way he had been treated as a kid.”
Beset with severe back pain, Williams struggled with alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. He died of heart failure at age 29 in 1953.
“Most of the people we consider geniuses in the arts were tortured souls, and he was the first,” Petty said.
Petty’s experience performing in “Lost Highway” in Nashville and New York City — where he earned accolades from The Associated Press, The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine — inspired him to create his own shows paying tribute to his country music heroes.
He brought “Country Royalty” to the Clark Center in January 2014. That show found Petty teaming up with Carolyn Martin, who was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Fall of Fame in 2011.
Petty teams up with the Western swing singer once more in “The Swingin’ Cowboys.” He created the show in honor of his dad, a Tennessee farmer who was never seen without his cowboy hat and boots.
Petty sees a connection between singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter and the Western swing bands such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys that found popularity around the same time.
“The cowboy is truly an American icon, so the music that goes with (that icon) is American music,” he said.
“The Swingin’ Cowboys” features Petty, Martin and her band performing such favorites as Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” Rogers’ “Don’t Fence Me In,” Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by Sons of the Pioneers. Other selections include the folk songs “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “Red River Valley.”
“They all tell a story,” Petty said.
“The Swingin’ Cowboys: A Tribute to the Music of the Great American West”
7 p.m. Saturday
Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande
$29 to $45
489-9444 or www.clarkcenter.org