August 10th, 2005
Hank Williams
About Hank Williams

By: Colin Escott

More than fifty years after his death, Hank Williams ranks among the most powerfully iconic figures in American music. Iconic to the point that man and myth are inextricably entwined. He set the agenda for contemporary country songcraft and sang his songs with such believability that we feel privy to his world, despite the fact that he left no in-depth interviews and just a few letters. His brief life and tragic death have only compounded his appeal.

Born in the tiny settlement of Mount Olive in south-central Alabama on September 17, 1923, Hiram “Hank” Williams grew up with a sense of apartness that never left him. A spinal condition, in all likelihood spina bifida occulta, ensured that he couldn’t work in the same occupations as his contemporaries: logging or farming. When Hank was six years old, his aloneness was compounded when his father, Lon, went into a veterans’ hospital; Hank would see him just twice in the next seven years. His mother, Lilly, ran rooming houses, first in Greenville, Alabama, and then in Montgomery.

Local influences shaped Hank’s music more profoundly than the big stars of the day. The gospel songs of both the black and white communities taught him that music, whether sacred or secular, must have a spiritual component. He learned traditional folk ballads and early country songs from neighbors and friends, and blues from a local African-American street musician, Rufus Payne (also known as Teetot). Payne not only taught Hank how to play the guitar, but helped him overcome his innate shyness. The blues feel that suffuses much of Hank Williams’ work is almost certainly Teetot’s legacy.

Entering local talent talent contests soon after moving to Montgomery in 1937, Hank had served a ten-year apprenticeship by the time he scored his first hit, “Move It on Over,” in 1947. He was twenty-three then, and twenty-five when the success of “Lovesick Blues” (a minstrel era song he did not write) earned him an invitation to join the preeminent radio barndance, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. His star rose rapidly. He wrote songs compulsively, and his producer/music publisher, Fred Rose, helped him isolate and refine those that held promise. The result was an unbroken string of hits that included “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “You Win Again.” He was a recording artist for six years, and, during that time, recorded just 66 songs under his own name (together with a few more as part of a husband-and-wife act, Hank & Audrey, and a more still under his moralistic alter ego, Luke the Drifter). Of the 66 songs recorded under his own name, an astonishing 37 were hits. More than once, he cut three songs that became standards in one afternoon.

The fourteen “Luke the Drifter” recordings were narrations and talking blues. Luke the Drifter walked with Hank Williams and talked through him. If Hank Williams could be headstrong and willful, a backslider and a reprobate, then Luke the Drifter was compassionate and moralistic, capable of dispensing all the sage advice that Hank Williams ignored. Luke the Drifter had seen it all, yet could still be moved to tears by a chance encounter on his travels. Although little known in comparison with the hits, the “Luke the Drifter” narrations were the closest Hank Williams came to bearing his soul.

As a songwriter, Hank Williams matured surprisingly quickly, and his fractious relationship with his first wife, Audrey (whom he’d married in 1943), provided him with much of the raw material. After Tony Bennett covered “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1951, his songs found a broader market, a market that Hank himself would have found it hard to penetrate. To the end, he was unapologetically Southern, unable to make the compromises that Elvis Presley would make just a few years later. But Williams’ songs went where he couldn’t, and from 1951 onward, there was a rush to reinterpret them for the pop market. Ironically, those pop versions, which comfortably outsold Williams’ originals in the early Fifties, now sound over-ornamented and outdated, while Williams’ spare and haunting versions sound ageless.

It all fell apart remarkably quickly. Hank Williams grew disillusioned with success, and the unending travel compounded his back problem. A spinal operation in December 1951 only worsened the condition. Career pressures and almost ceaseless pain led to recurrent bouts of alcoholism. He missed an increasing number of showdates, frustrating those who attempted to manage or help him. His wife, Audrey, ordered him out of their house in January 1952, and he was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry in August that year for failing to appear on Opry-sponsored showdates. Returning to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he’d been an up-and-coming star in 1948, he took a second wife, Billie Jean Jones, and hired a bogus doctor who compounded his already serious physical problems with potentially lethal drugs.

In late December 1952, Hank Williams returned to Montgomery, attempting to recuperate, but decided to meet two prearranged showdates on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. He died en route, aged just twenty-nine. Contrary to myth, Williams did not die with his star in the ascendant. “Jambalaya” had been one of the best-selling records of 1952, but while his records were topping the charts, he was so unreliable that he was reduced to playing beerhalls in Texas and Louisiana. There’s a persistent myth that he would have returned to the Opry had he not died on New Year’s Day 1953, but surviving correspondence suggests nothing more than a few more beerhall gigs. On a record released after his death, Williams sang of being pursued by the “Pale Horse and His Rider.” On a home recording made shortly before his death, he directly addressed “The Angel of Death.” It’s impossible to escape the feeling that he lived with the spirits every day, and drank in part to escape them.

Timing is everything and Hank Williams came and went at precisely the right time. Country music was a cottage industry at the time of his arrival, yet, just a few years after his death, it was shaking off its “hillbilly” image. An artist as unapologetically rural as Hank Williams would have been shown the door. Elvis Presley appeared on the Grand Ole Opry just two years after Hank was dismissed, and Nashville’s response to Elvis was to nurture artists who could cross between country and pop, leading to the birth of the Nashville Sound. Hank Williams didn’t belong in the Nashville Sound era, but his tragically early death spared him the indignity of trying. Instead, his songs have lived on, reintrepreted by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, jazz diva Norah Jones, crooner Perry Como, R&B star Dinah Washington, and British punk band, The The.

 

  • Glenn

    The day Hank Williams died I hung up my guitar and cried. It was the day the music died, but it wouldn’t b the first.

  • Bob Lipar

    Hank was THE first music superstar !!! He put Country music on the map. What a shame he left us so early. So much talent and so many songs left unwritten !!! His songs and voice send chills up and down my spine !! When he sings, I feel that he’s singing right to me !! I can relate to what he sings about !! His music will live on for generations to come !! HANK WILLIAMS LIVES ON !!!!!!!

  • Debra

    Many of Hank’s songs have a haunting sadness about them, but he could also be humorous as Fly Trouble shows. Until I bought my first Hank Williams album, i only heard him occasionally on the radio, and more from my Dad. My father loved Hank too! His love showed to me a great musician, a musician who could write such simple, yet beautiful lyrics! Hats off to you Mr. Williams! May your music live on forever!

  • James

    Hank may have ushered in country music, but I never saw him as just a country star. Without him, we would have never heard Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, or Neil Young. He had a very unique voice, and writing style. He is not only the grandfather of country, but also folk music. He passed away too young, like many of great did. I am now going to now listen to the Grateful Dead’s great cover of You Win Again from the live album Europe 72.

  • Rex Archer

    Hanks songs will live forever somewhere, they were and are special. My all time list of Country Stars has Hank Williams # 1, Buck Owens #2, Lefty Frezzell #3, Ray price #4, George Jones #5. Hank will top every list I ever have, one of a kind for sure.

  • bea dail

    I love Hank , I cried when he died and I still buy and play his music.no other artist will ever be Hank Williams. I am 75 now and I play his music,. Hope to meet him again some day In THAT BEAUTIFUL HOME

  • bea dail

    IT would be nice if country music was COUNTRY MUSIC

  • bea dail

    HANK WILLIAMS WAS # 1 #1 AND all #s

  • bea dail

    I wish all the so called country singers would go to Hollywood and get some country singers get this thing started all over again with some real country music. I really do not call Hank Williams Jr country

  • Carole

    Hank Williams, Sr, was very inspiring in his writing & performances. His mentor, Rufus “Teetot” Payne, did us all a favor when he began giving young Hank lessons when Hank was only 9 years old. Hank took it from there, & with his persistence & natural talent filled our world with music that still lives on today. It’s sad that he suffered so much with back pain, but he succeeded in spite of it. There is no one like him. He’s our Shakespeare of country music & a genuine treasure.

  • Diana

    I remember as a kid hearing my Dad sing Hank William’s songs to my Mom. I love Hank Williams. He is a very good memory of my childhood

  • john newsome

    Hank was the greatest–He lived, ate, drank his songs. No one can or ever will be able to do what he did..
    I was 15 when he died..And most all radio stations started to play his records. He was a once in a lifetime singer to come along..I will always praise Hank Williams–He never knew how great he was..But we do know that now. Hank Williams and Merle Haggards come around about every 100 years.

  • Steve Endicott

    I am teh biggest hank Williams fan there is! I first heard his music through my father and older brother. I think I drove my father and one of my sister’s absolutely nuts,listening to Hank as I was a seven yr old.At a time when I should have been outside playing with friends and exploring my little world ,here I was only a little boy,sitting inside and listening to his music! My older brother taught me how to play guitar when I was 12 and I remember thinking I always wanted to be able to play Hank’s songs on the guitar myself! Well that was over 30 yrs ago and now,I teach my 18 yr old son and even my 14 yr old daughter is picking it up! I just wanted to remind everyone that it is coming up to the anniversary of Hanks’ death (Jan1st although it’s been proven in documents that he most likely died Dec31st)he has been gone now for 57yrs! Even though I was not around when he died,I still can’t believe he is gone and what an impact he made in his short,but all too brief life and career! What also amazes me is he is even talked about and being talked about right now on the net!! Thanks everyone even you younger people who weren’t even around when they had a thing called “LP’s” for keeping HANK WILLIAMS’ music alive and well right through the new millennium!! Thank you so much ,I never thought it would be possible! Thanks again everyone and thanks for coming our way when you did ,HANK! You never saw it ,but,your music is alive and well buddy! CHEERS TO HANK WILLIAMS!!!!!!!! There is and never will be no other!

  • joe walmsley

    in my opinion there have only two great county/westernsingers onemale one female hank andpatsy

  • Darlene

    Was Luke the Drifter his first record. I have this record. Is it worth anything

  • Lelia

    I love Hank song and his music to me he was the best

  • Joe

    I can’t sing, so I enjoy those who can. No one has affected my life more than Hank Williams. My father, who died when I was twelve, didn’t really like me, but we shared Hank Williams as our favorite singer. There are other Country singers I love, but there’s only one Hank Williams. I hope he found the peace in death that he could never find in life.

  • Rick C

    Hank certainly was a great writer and performer. His music did not rely on recording equipment, effects, or anyone other than Hank. His soulful sound lives on and sets a standard that today’s artists could learn from.
    And…he sounds completely American.

  • curtis savoy

    im 73 and remember hank and every song he recorded of any note. When hank died -i think country music died. His lyrics were those of a frustrated man in love and he lived each moment. He was a genious in his own right. and his clean country sound should be the impetus for each country band. There will never be another hank and i pray that he and jimmie rodgers are playing and singing in heaven. His songs of inspiration tell me that i will see him in heaven.

  • Jerry

    This is the best article I have ever read about him. This truly explains why he never was able to recover from his problems. I remember when he died, everyone was shocked.
    I believe there are a few singers that have the old time feel in their music..

  • Terry Hopping

    There will never be another. We, had our own country band. We sang in small bars and once I sang with Hand SNow. My singing partners are all gone but I still play quitar and sing Hank’s songs. About a year ago I heard Alan Jackson sing about Hank Williams. I CRIED. In Montgomery. Good for Alan Jaackson. Long live Hank Williams. Forever young. I am now 79. Terry H.

  • doug kirker

    huey lewis honky tonk blues,geo thorogood move it on over, grateful dead you win agian,cheryl crow you win agian,the tractors setting the woods on fire,geo strait lovesick blues,jerry lee and elvis cold cold heart,pirates of the mississippi honky tonk blues,emmy lou harris theyll never take his love,patsy cline lovesick blues,there is way way more;tony bennitt,rosemary clooney,waylon jennings,leroy parnell,kieth richards,leon redbone,bob dylan have all recorded his music.not to mention the musicians who were influenced by him in one way or another;davd allen coe,niel young,alan jackson,gram parsons,hank,jr., he was even inspired by artists that preceded him,like;bill monroe,red foley,eddy arnold,roy acuff,maybelle carter.it just goes on and on.none of us can say enough about him .he is simply the greatest american musician who ever lived.i think he should even be in the rock and roll hall of fame.

  • Mike Pennington

    My early life was greatly influenced by Hank Williams music. I saw him as some sort of hero and played his songs religiously. These days I’m 65 and have only recently stopped playing his music, but it will all live on with me until I die.

  • Sandy Untermyer

    Check out the lyrics to Thank You, Hank by Marshall Chapman.

    The Father of Country Music? Hell, no. That was Jimmie Rogers. Hank is the Father of Rock’n'Roll. Elvis became the Hank that Hank was trying to get to, but died before he could make it. Hank died in 1955, Elvis only three years later.

  • Nap Manisuk

    Just happened to see this article about Hank, So many years ago in so far away land I fell in love with his songs and particulary his piercing voice. He became my idol while I was in my teen years. He’s one of my reasons to try to sing and play guitar and entertain people around me. His songs spoke to me and still does that magic to me every time I hear his songs. Time may pass so fast as I’m now 64 but my love of his music is even growing stronger! He’s the master of 3 chord songs with the simple truth lyrics that as sharp as the razor blade that can bleed you every time. Long live Hank Williams, your music will never die and I’m so thankful for what you gave to us.

  • Frank J. Gustafson

    Hank Williams Was A gifted Singer Musician and Song Writer. No Other Entertainer Was Ever Better. Not Fred Astaire Judy Garland Elvis Presley Bette Davis Ethel Merman Cole Porter Irving Berlin Strauss Beethoven. Hank Was Among These Names As A Peer. God Bless Hank Williams Forever And Ever Amen!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jill Stewart

    It is so nice to read all of the tributes to Hank Williams. He was gone before I was born but fortunately I grew up where his music was played and we sang his songs as kids. When I play Hank Williams I know all the tunes and words just from growing up with his music, I’m blessed! I just love it and I still enjoying his wonderful voice, lyrics, and music. What a treasure! To quote Curis Savoy, “His songs of inspiration tell me that i will see him in heaven.” And to quote Frank Gustafson, “God Bless Hank Williams Forever And Ever Amen!!!!!!!!!!”

  • mark speetzen

    When my son was seven or eight, we would drive for eight hours to see my parents. I had two tapes in the car, the greatest hits of James Brown and the greatest hits of Hank Williams. Somehow these two musical worlds merged, and to this day Brown and Williams are still on our top ten list.

  • Roger Meaney

    I live in Australia and I first heard Hank

  • Johnny Crason

    I love and adore Hank but, Jimmie Rodgers (”the Singing Brakeman”) was the first real country music songwriter and star. That was back in the 30’s. Therefore, if anyone is the “Grandfather of country music” it was him. Just sayin’.

  • Steevo

    Hank Williams has some of his blood running through my veins He died in Jan of 53′. I was born in July of 53′.
    Steevo, The New Man in Black

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