Williams, Hank Sr.
Hank Williams, Sr.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
He is known simply as the greatest country singer of all time—the immortal Hank Williams, whose ballads and laments of frustrated love brought a regional music squarely into the mainstream. Williams was one of the best songwriters ever to emerge in the country genre, and his exceptional creative ability was enhanced by a magnetic, if utterly rural, stage presence. In Country Music U.S.A., Bill C. Malone calls Williams “the most dramatic symbol of country music’s postwar surge,” an artist whose “early death solidified the legend that had already begun during his lifetime.”
Most country singers rely upon outside sources for at least some of their songs. Williams was an exception to that rule: his concerts were composed almost exclusively of pieces he wrote himself, now-classic tunes like “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Saw the Light,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me?” According to Roger M. Williams in Stars of Country Music, the fact that Williams had such a lengthy and varied repertory is one mark of his greatness. The critic adds: “A larger mark is the extraordinary number of truly memorable songs [Williams] turned out. Those songs transcend country music, or any category short of pop. They are part of America’s musical heritage, and they elevate the man who wrote them to a very high rank among the nation’s songwriters.”
For all his greatness, however, Williams had only a brief period of success, marred by the excessive drinking that would kill him before he turned thirty. The greatest part of his short life was spent in near-poverty, playing in the deep South’s roughest honky tonks and on small radio stations in Alabama and Louisiana. Hiram King Williams was born September 17, 1923, in tiny Mount Olive, Alabama. His family was very poor, because his father—a part-time farmer and log train engineer—suffered from poor health. When Williams was seven, his father disappeared into a veteran’s hospital and was never seen again. Young Hank was called on to help support the family by selling peanuts and newspapers and shining shoes.
Williams was fronting a country band by the time he turned fourteen. He drew upon numerous sources for his musical style, from the gospel sounds he heard in church (his mother was an organist) to the tunes of Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. The singer also owed a stylistic debt to black music; he was taught guitar by a local street singer named Tee-Tot (Rufus Payne) who lived in his home town. At any rate, Williams was writing his own songs and singing them from his earliest teens. His first recognition came at an amateur contest in Montgomery, Alabama, where he won first place for a performance of “WPA Blues,” a song he wrote himself. Shortly thereafter he formed his band, the Drifting Cowboys,
Full name Hiram King Williams; born September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive, Alabama; died of alcohol-induced heart failure January 1, 1953, in Oak Hill, West Virginia; son of Lonnie (a farmer and log train engineer) and Lilly (a church organist) Williams; married Audrey Sheppard, 1942 (divorced, 1952); married Billie Jones (a model and singer), 1952; children: (first marriage) Hank Jr.; one daughter, Cathy Yvonne Stone, out of wedlock.
Country singer, songwriter, guitar player, 1937-53. Won amateur night contest in Montgomery, Alabama, singing own composition, “WPA Blues,” 1937; formed band the Drifting Cowboys, 1937; played and sang with the Drifting Cowboys at honky tonks and on radio station WSFA, Montgomery, 1937-46; signed with Sterling Records, 1946, moved to MGM Records, 1947. Became a regular on radio station KWKH’s “Louisiana Hayride,” Shreveport, La., 1947; made debut on the Grand Ole Opry, June 11, 1949. Cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, 1949-52.
Awards: Hit singles for MGM include “Why Don’t You Love Me?” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as the first member, 1961.
and began a long tenure in country music’s bush leagues.
The Alabama honky tonks where Williams played were so rough that they were called “blood buckets.” In that unsavory atmosphere the young singer developed his style as well as his fatal attraction to alcohol. Williams was so unsuccessful in the early years that he quit music during the Second World War and worked as a welder in the Mobile shipyards. After the war he returned to music, determined at least to sell some of the songs he had written.
In 1946, the twenty-three year-old Williams set off for Nashville with his wife Audrey. There they paid an unsolicited call on Fred Rose, Nashville’s biggest music writer and publisher. Rose listened to Williams sing and play a half dozen of his songs and signed him to a contract immediately. The years of struggle were finally over for Williams, as Rose took the singer on as a protege and literally directed the course of his entire career. Rose helped Williams to secure a contract with MGM Records, and after Williams’s first country hit, “Move It on Over,” helped the singer to land a job with the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show in Shreveport.
Fred Rose also helped the semi-literate Williams to polish his songs, bearing in mind that they might be sold to the lucrative pop music market. The ambition bore fruit with a number of Williams tunes, especially “Cold, Cold Heart.” A mournful song of unrequited love, “Cold, Cold Heart” became the breakthrough pop hit for Tony Bennett, selling over a million copies, and a Number 1 country hit for Williams as well. Roger Williams notes that the Williams-Rose collaboration “was one of the most successful in American musical history. It was a perfect union: Williams’s native genius, Rose’s craftsmanship and sure sense of the market.”
Williams was the headliner on the “Louisiana Hayride” for two years, earning hits with singles such as “Move It on Over,” “I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep,” and “Lovesick Blues.” The success of the latter song, an old Tin Pan Alley number, secured Williams an invitation to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. His debut there, on June 11, 1949, remains a highlight of country music history. The audience brought Williams back for six encores of “Lovesick Blues” and had to be quieted in order for the show to continue. Despite his well-publicized drinking problems, Williams was invited to be a regular on the Opry.
As an Opry regular, Williams had to have his own band. He reorganized the Drifting Cowboys, drafting Jerry Rivers (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar), Bob McNett (lead guitar) and Hillous Butrum (bass). These and other studio musicians began to travel with Williams on the bone-wearying cross-country trips to live show appearances. Williams and his band performed all across America and made several visits to Canada and one to Germany to entertain American soldiers stationed there.
Within a year, Hank Williams was the most sought-after country star in the business. His salary from shows and recordings topped $200,000 per year, and thanks to Rose he was wise about securing publishing rights to his work. Still Williams faced a devastating problem— when he was sober, he could perform brilliantly. When drunk, he could do nothing at all. His backup band tried to keep him alcohol and drugfree, but with only limited success. Even at the height of his fame Williams seemed bent on self-destruction.
With Number 1 hits like “Why Don’t You Love Me?” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” Williams won a popular acclaim that no country singer had previously equaled. Music fans outside the country sphere bought his records and learned his songs, and country fans could not get enough of him. Oddly enough, this first “crossover” artist epitomized the traditional, rural sound. On stage Williams was a spontaneous, easygoing performer with a magnetic smile. His voice was pure country, strong and steady but with a keening edge that leant pathos to his love ballads. Analyzing the singer’s vast popularity, Roger Williams simply concludes that Hank “had the infectious appeal common to all great performers.”
This appeal was not enough to assure Williams’s continued success. In 1952 he was fired from the Opry for drunkenness, and he returned to the “Louisiana Hay-ride” for a brief period. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he became somewhat a laughingstock for his wedding to a Louisiana beauty—the ceremony was conducted twice, in public, and admission was charged. By that time Williams was a walking victim of drug abuse—a back ailment from his early years led to the use of painkillers in addition to alcohol. His sudden death of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 1953 still came as a shock to the nation. He died in his sleep en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio. He was twenty-nine.
Death only enhanced Williams’s appeal to his legions of fans. A number of Williams singles were released posthumously, including the classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” To this day Hank Williams remains one of the best-selling country singers, with numerous albums in print in any given year. His songs have been covered countless times by all kinds of singers—especially his famous son, Hank, Jr. Royalties on Hank Williams songs have earned the Williams family millions of dollars in the decades since the performer’s death. It is certainly not surprising that he was the very first entertainer elected to the prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame when it opened in 1961.
Grounded as he was in the country tradition, Williams had a seminal influence on the acceptance of country by mainstream audiences. His appeal was basic: he could communicate sincerely with listeners. Malone notes that Williams “’lived’ the songs he sang—he could communicate his feelings to the listener and make each person feel as if the song were being sung directly and only to him or her.” Roger Williams writes: “Everybody understands what a Hank Williams song means, and almost everybody senses the straightforward, bedrock emotion—joy or anguish or both—from which it springs.”
Williams, the hard-living, self-destructive rambling bard, mined his own misery for lyrics and gave the world a number of its most memorable country songs. He explained the popularity of his work this way: “When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings, ‘I Laid My Mother Away,’ he sees her a-laying right there in the coffin. He sings more sincere than most entertainers because the hillbilly was raised rougher than most entertainers. You got to know a lot about hard work. You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly. The people who has been raised something like the way the hillbilly has knows what he is singing about and appreciates it.” Williams’s genius lay in his ability to bring out the hillbilly in all Americans, rich and poor, rural and urban, simple and sophisticated.
Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits, MGM.
The Humor of Hank Williams, MGM.
I’m Blue Inside, MGM.
/Saw the Light, MGM.
Life to Legend, MGM.
Movin’ On—Luke the Drifter, MGM.
24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits, MGM.
The Very Best of Hank Williams, Volume 1, MGM.
The Very Best of Hank Williams, Volume 2, MGM.
Wait for the Light To Shine, MGM, reissued, Polydor.
Hank Williams on Stage, Volume 1, MGM.
Hank Williams on Stage, Volume 2, MGM.
The Essential Hank Williams, MGM.
Hank Williams, Sr. Live at the Grand Ole Opry, MGM.
Hank Williams Memorial Album, MGM, reprinted, Polydor.
Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits, Volume 2, MGM.
Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits, Volume 3, MGM.
Home in Heaven, MGM.
Beyond the Sunset, MGM.
Lost Highway, MGM.
Honky Tonkin’, MGM.
40 Greatest Hits of Hank Williams, Polydor.
Hey, Good Lookin’, Polydor.
I Ain’t Got Nuthin’ but Time, Polydor.
I Won’t Be Home No More, Polydor.
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Polydor.
Let’s Turn back the Years, Polydor.
Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Polydor.
Lovesick Blues, Polydor.
Moanin’ the Blues, Polydor.
Hank Williams on the Air, Polydor.
Rare Takes & Radio Cuts, Polydor.
Wanderin’ Around, Polydor.
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America’s Country & Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
The Great American Popular Singers, Simon & Schuster, 1974.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C., and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Rivers, Jerry, Hank Williams: From Life to Legend, Heather Enterprises, 1967.
Sandberg, Larry, and Dick Weissman, The Folk Music Sourcebook, Knopf, 1976.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Williams, Roger M., Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams, Doubleday, 1970.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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