In his tragically short career, Hank Williams (1923-1953) became one of the most famous country and western performers in the United States. He wrote and recorded songs that are still considered to be country music standards.
Hiram King "Hank" Williams was born on September 17, 1923, near Mt. Olive, Alabama, the third child born to Elonzo Huble and Lillian (Skipper) Williams. His father abandoned the family when Williams was a young child, spending many years at veterans' hospitals for various ailments. It therefore became the responsibility of his strong-willed mother to raise Williams and the other children. Williams attended Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, but left school at the age of 16.
Raised as a Fundamentalist Baptist, Williams was steeped from his earliest childhood in the church's distinctive sermons and music. He remained fond of the fire and brimstone images, especially from the songs. His mother played the organ at Mt. Olive West Baptist Church. "My earliest memory," Williams told Rolling Stone writer Ralph J. Gleason, (as quoted by Williams' biographer Colin Escott), "is sittin' on that organ stool by her and hollerin'. I must have been five, six-years-old, and louder'n anybody else." Williams also found inspiration in black music. He learned to play the guitar in Greenville, Alabama, from a street performer named Rufe Payne, known as Tee-Tot. "I was shinin' shoes and sellin' newspapers and following [him] around to get him to teach me to play the git-tar," Williams told Gleason. "I'd give him 15 cents, or whatever I could get ahold of for a lesson." Yet another musical inspiration for the lanky teenager were the ever-present sounds of traditional country music performers like the Carter family and Monroe brothers.
Trying to break into the music business, Williams entered talent contests all over the country. He won $15 at the Empire Theater in Montgomery by performing what is probably the first song he wrote, "WPA Blues," a blues critique of President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era work program. Too sickly and skinny for the hard labor jobs of his peers, Williams honed his guitar and singing skills. In 1942, he managed to get his own weekly 15-minute show on Montgomery radio station WSFA. (In those days, radio programming was composed almost entirely of live acts.) Williams spent several years (the precise number varied wildly depending on who told it) at WSFA, eventually becoming a disk jockey. In Montgomery, Williams made his first recording, at Griffin's Radio Shop. Around this time, he organized his backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, who would play with him through most of his career.
In 1943, Williams met Audrey Mae Sheppard. At the age of 20, she was separated from her husband and a single mother. In a ceremony just ten days after her divorce became final, she and Williams were married before a justice of the peace at his gas station near Andalusia, Alabama in December 1944. With the help of his new bride, who took over his mother's motivating role, Williams traveled to Nashville. He was determined to build a successful career in the country music business.
In 1946, Williams earned a writer's contract after auditioning for Acuff-Rose publishing. He recorded his first session in December 1946, and the single "Calling You" was released in January 1947. The success of that record led to a one-year recording contract with MGM records in March 1947. His first MGM single, "Move It On Over," sold 108,000 copies in less than a year. His growing popularity enabled Williams to secure a position on a bigger radio show, the Louisiana Hayride, which was broadcast out of Shreveport, Louisiana. It was the biggest listening audience he had ever reached.
Williams recorded "Lovesick Blues," from a 1922 musical called Oooh Ernest! "Lovesick Blues, a song that was neither country nor blues in origin, and not even from Hank's pen, gave him his breakthrough," Escott later wrote. "From the opening line, with its keening yodel adding a dramatic flourish to the word "blues," it was obvious that this was a performance—rather than a song—that was impossible to ignore. Hank's performance almost instilled the lyrics with meaning."
The song, released February 11, 1949, quickly became Williams' trademark tune. It spent a year on the charts, including 16 weeks at the top. Suddenly, Williams found himself on a roll. He quickly recorded two more songs that also hit the charts, "Wedding Bells," and "Mind Your Own Business," a tune allegedly aimed at his wife. Even though Williams was gaining a reputation for being unreliable and having a problem with alcohol, the Grand Ole Opry reluctantly hired the rising young star as a regular cast member in the summer of 1949.
As Williams grew more famous, his wife began to push for her own spot in the limelight. Since the start of their relationship, Williams had sometimes allowed her to play with the Drifting Cowboys. They recorded several duets together. One demo revealed that "Audrey's voice sounded like fingernails scraping down a blackboard. She was shrill and tuneless, and her problems were compounded by a weak sense of time," Escott wrote. "Her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life—she fought him for dominance on every note."
1949 was a very successful year for Williams. Not only was he hired by the Grand Ole Opry, but he became the proud parent of a son, Randall Hank Jr., who would later become a country music star in his own right. In 1950, Williams had a series of successful songs including "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," and "Why Don't You Love Me." He also released a series of religious duets with his wife. Using his own increasing stardom as leverage, Williams had helped his wife get a recording contract with Decca. They were far less successful. He recorded his unpopular religious sermons under the name "Luke the Drifter," so that jukebox operators who had standing orders for any Hank Williams release wouldn't buy them.
Williams' success continued through 1951, and culminated with the release of "Cold, Cold Heart." The tune spent almost a year at the top of the country music charts. Music executives convinced pop crooner Tony Bennett to record a version of the song, which became a hit for him as well. This was especially significant because it was the first time a country song recorded by a pop artist had achieved such stunning commercial success. Subsequently, Williams became noticed on a national level, one of the first country singers to do so. In addition to their musical activities, Williams and his wife found the time to launch a Nashville clothing store, Hank and Audrey's Corral.
Decline and Fall
With greater success came increased pressure. Williams felt an obligation to continue producing hit songs. He allegedly bought some songs under shady circumstances and called them his own. The relationship between Hank and Audrey Williams also grew tense, as allegations of mutual infidelities flew. His problem with alcohol grew worse. In January 1952, Audrey Williams filed for divorce.
"As his personal life began its disintegration," Escott wrote, "Hank's recording career swung into high gear. Every record he released under his own name during the last two years of his life entered the top five of the country charts, and many were covered for the pop market. Williams canceled some sessions, and failed to show at others, but when he actually appeared in front of the studio microphone, it seemed as though he could do no wrong."
Williams could not maintain the front for long. Although he made television appearances and had even gotten some movie offers, Williams lost what little control he had maintained over his drinking. He also began abusing amphetamines and barbiturates. In 1952, he lost his job with the Grand Ole Opry and was forced to return to the Louisiana Hayride. He moved into his mother's boarding house in Montgomery, Alabama.
Williams married for the second time on October 19, 1952. His new bride was Billie Jean Jones, the daughter of the Bossier City, Louisiana, police chief. The wedding took place three times at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium for an estimated 14,000 spectators who paid to see the event. The couple was only married for ten weeks before Williams' reckless lifestyle caught up with him. On New Year's Eve, 1952, he was riding in the back seat of his chauffeured Cadillac to a show in Ohio. Williams was heavily medicated and drunk when he died of an alcohol-induced heart attack sometime during the night in Oak Hill, West Virginia. On January 1, 1953, Williams was pronounced dead. He was 29 years old.
Williams' funeral in Montgomery, Alabama, drew more than 20,000 mourners from all over the country. Country stars Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Carl Smith, and Webb Pierce sang in memory of their lost friend. The Montgomery Advertiser reported (as noted in Country: The Music and Musicians ) "They came from everywhere, dressed in their Sunday best, babies in their arms, hobbling on crutches and canes, Negroes, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, small children, and wrinkled faced old men and women. Some brought their lunch."
Almost immediately after Williams' death, a battle over his estate broke out between the surviving members of the family. Audrey Williams, Billie Jean Williams, and Williams' mother sued and counter-sued for years. Lawsuits continued into the late 1980s between Hank Williams, Jr., and the "lost daughter" of Hank Williams, Sr., who was conceived during a short affair Williams had after his first wife threw him out of the house. Jett Williams was born five days after her father's death. Like her half brother, she later launched a singing career and hired several members of her father's Drifting Cowboys to play backup.
Despite his excesses the controversy regarding his estate, Williams could be proud of his musical legacy. In The Illustrated History of Country Music, music legend Johnny Cash stated, "Hank Williams is like a Cadillac. He'll always be the standard for comparison." Williams' trademark hillbilly-tinged sound remains a country music staple. In 1990, Poly Gram Records released a popular collection of every known single he recorded. In 1998, famed auction house Christie's, auctioned off one of his old Gibson guitars. The guitar fetched $112,000. Clearly, Williams continues to lure fans.
The key to Williams' long-lasting popularity "is passion," concluded Escott. "The entire range of human emotions is within these recordings: love, hate, envy, joy, guilt, despair, remorse, playfulness, sorrow, and more. The lyrics were simple, but simplicity does not preclude meaning. In writing for the man who could barely sign his name, Hank Williams wrote for us all." He cited some of Williams' more poignant lyrics, noting: "There can be few who haven't felt as though Hank Williams has read their mail, their diary, or their mind."
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America's Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Country: The Music and the Musicians, edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alan Axelrod, Country Music Foundation, 1988.
Escott, Colin, Hank Williams: The Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
The Illustrated History of Country Music, edited by Patrick Carr, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979.
Williams, Jett, with Pamela Thomas, Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby: The Story of Hank Williams' Lost Daughter, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
Williams, Roger M., Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams, University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Forbes, March 9, 1998, p. 249.
"Hank Williams: The Complete Website," http://www.geocities.com/Nashville/Opry/9132/ (February 12, 2000).
Hank Williams, Sr., "Welcome to the Official Website of: Hank Williams, Sr.," http://www.cmgww.com/music/hank/ (February 12, 2000). □