Hiram "Hank" Williams (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was an American singer and songwriter, an iconic figure in country music, and one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. A leading exponent of the Honky Tonk style, he had numerous hit records, and his charismatic performances won him national celebrity prior to the advent of rock and roll. Williams' poignant lyrics and plaintiff vocal style influenced generations of country and pop songwriters and performers through the present day. His songbook is one of the backbones of country music, and his recordings have been widely covered in a range of genres.
Williams' artistic seriousness coexisted with pronounced dysfunction in his private life. An alcoholic from a young age, Williams handled his fame and increasing fortunes with reckless self-indulgence. As much as for any popular artist, Williams' songs and performances were the direct offspring of the trauma of his private life. His disastrous marriage particularly became the source material for compositions that explored the emotional devastation of false love.
Although not religious in practice, Williams bowed to country music conventions and authored a number of memorable spirituals that bore the signature of his genius. His best known, "I Saw the Light," expressed his own inchoate longing for redemption from a self-destructive life and addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Williams' legend has only grown since his premature death at the age of 29. His son, Hank Williams, Jr., went on to become a major country music star in his own right; and his daughter Jett Williams as well as his grandchildren, Hank Williams III and Holly Williams, are also professional musicians.
Williams was born in 1923, in the small unincorporated town of Mount Olive, about eight miles southwest of Georgiana, Alabama. He was named after Hiram I of Tyre, but his name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate. Hiram was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disease of the spinal column, which gave him life-long pain—a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. His parents were Alonzo Huble Williams, known as "Lon," a train conductor for a regional lumber company, and Jessie Lillybelle Williams, known as "Lillie." He had an older sister named Irene.
During his early childhood, the Williams family moved frequently throughout southern Alabama as his father's job required. In 1930, his father began suffering from face paralysis, and doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm. He remained hospitalized for eight years and was thus mostly absent throughout Hank's childhood. In 1931, Lillie Williams settled her family in Georgiana, where she worked as the manager of a boarding house. She also worked in a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital. Hiram and Irene helped out by selling peanuts, shining shoes, delivering newspapers, and doing other simple jobs. The family also began collecting Lon's military disability pension and thus managed relatively well financially throughout the Depression.
In 1933, at the age of ten, Hiram went to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his uncle and aunt, Walter and Alice McNeil. There he learned some of the trades and habits that would dominate the rest of his life. His Aunt Alice taught him to play the guitar, and his cousin J.C. taught him to drink whiskey.
After a year of living with his relatives in Fountain, Hiram moved back to Georgiana, where he met Rufus Payne, a black blues musician living in the nearby town of Greenville. Payne often traveled to Georgiana and other towns in the area to perform in the streets and other public places. Known more commonly as "Tee-Tot," he became Hiram's mentor, greatly influencing his musical style.
In the fall of 1934, the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, a larger town about 15 miles to the north of Georgiana. Lillie opened a boarding house next to the Butler County courthouse, and Hiram was able to spend more time with Payne. In 1937, however, Lillie decided to move the family to Montgomery.
In July 1937, the Williams and McNeil families opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery, a much larger city than any of them had ever lived in. It was at this time that Hiram decided to informally change his name to Hank, a name which he said was better suited to his desired career in country music.
After school and on weekends, Hank sang and played his Silverstone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. He quickly caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to come inside and perform on-air. So many listeners contacted the radio station asking for more of the "Singing Kid" that the producers hired him to host his own 15-minute show twice weekly for a salary of 15 dollars per week.
Hank's successful radio show fueled his entrance to a music career. His generous salary was enough for him to start his own band, which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys. The original members of the band were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and comic Smith "Hezzy" Adair. The Drifting Cowboys traveled throughout central and southern Alabama, performing in clubs and at private parties. Hank dropped out of school in October 1939, so that the Drifting Cowboys could work full time.
Lillie Williams stepped up to act as the band's manager. She began booking show dates, negotiating prices, and driving them to some of their shows. Now free to travel without Hank's school schedule taking precedence, the band was able to tour as far away as western Georgia and the Florida Panhandle on weekends. Meanwhile, Hank returned to Montgomery during the week to host his radio show.
The nation's entrance into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Hank. All his band members were drafted to serve in the military, and the promising young singer, still a teenager, was beginning to have problems controlling his drinking. His idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying "You've got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain." Despite Acuff's advice, Williams continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated and in August 1942, WSFA fired him due to "habitual drunkenness."
In 1943, Williams met Audrey Sheppard, and the couple was married a year later. Audrey also became his manager, and Hank's shows at dances and fairs grew in popularity. Hank recorded two singles for Sterling Records in 1946–1947, "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'," both of which were successful. He soon signed with MGM Records and released "Move It On Over," a massive country hit. In August 1948, Williams joined the Louisiana Hayride radio show, broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana, propelling him into living rooms all over the southeast.
After a few more moderate hits, Williams had a banner year in 1949, beginning with his release of Rex Griffin's "Lovesick Blues," which became a huge country hit and crossed over to mainstream audiences. When Hank sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, country music's premier venue, the audience responded so favorably that he received a record six encores. Hank Williams was now a major country star.
Hank brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass guitar), Jerry Rivers (fiddle), and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys. Meanwhile, also in 1949, Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams Jr.). Seven straight hit songs followed "Lovesick Blues," including "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
In 1950, Williams began recording some sides as Luke the Drifter, an appellation he used for some of his more moralistic and religious-themed recordings, several of which are recitations. Williams released 14 Luke the Drifter songs, including "Ramblin' Man" and "Pictures from Life's other Side."
Around the same time, Williams recorded several more hit songs under his own name, such as "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me," "Why Should We Try Anymore?," "Nobody's Lonesome for Me," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me?," "Moanin' the Blues," and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'." In 1951, "Dear John" became a hit, but the B-side, "Cold, Cold Heart," endured as one of his most famous songs, aided by the number-one pop version by Tony Bennett. "Cold, Cold Heart" has subsequently been covered by Guy Mitchell, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Washington, Lucinda Williams, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and Norah Jones, among others. That same year, Williams released other hits, including the enduring classic "Crazy Heart."
Despite his success, Williams' life would soon become unmanageable. His marriage, always turbulent, was rapidly disintegrating, and he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine and other painkillers. Much of this abuse came from attempts to ease his severe back pain, which was caused by spina bifida occulta, a birth defect. In 1952, Hank and Audrey separated and he moved in with his mother, even as he released numerous additional hit songs, such as "Half as Much," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Settin' the Woods on Fire," and "You Win Again." Williams' drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. A relationship with Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett (Williams), who would be born just after his death.
In October 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Told not to return until he was sober, he instead rejoined the Louisiana Hayride. On October 18, 1952, he married Billie Jean Jones Eshliman. A ceremony was held at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium and 14,000 people bought tickets to attend. Soon after, the Drifting Cowboys decided to part ways with Williams.
Death and Legacy
On January 1, 1953, Williams was due to play in Canton, Ohio. Unable to fly due to weather problems, he hired a chauffeur and—before leaving the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee—was injected with Vitamin B12 and morphine. He left town in a Cadillac, carrying a bottle of whiskey with him. When his 17-year-old chauffeur pulled over at an all-night service station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, he discovered that Williams was unresponsive and becoming rigid. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that Hank Williams was dead. Williams' final single was ominously titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Five days after his death, his out-of-wedlock daughter, Jett Williams, was born to Bobbie Jett. His widow, Billie Jean, married country singer Johnny Horton in September of that year.
Hank's son, Hank Williams, Jr., went on to become a major country star, after getting his start singing his father's songs and releasing "duets" with him through overdubbed recordings. Hank's daughter Jett Williams, grandson Hank Williams III, and granddaughters Hillary Williams and Holly Williams are also country musicians.
Several of Hank's biggest hits were released after his death, including "Your Cheatin' Heart" (1953), which ultimately became his best-known composition. It also provided the title of the 1964 Hollywood movie of Hank's life, starring George Hamilton.
The honest, powerful expressiveness of his lyrics and singing made Williams an icon of country music to which performers young and old aspire. But the legend of Hank Williams seems to rest in the paradox of his short life as a fun-loving, hard-drinking rambler with a sensitive, religious bent and the heart of a poet. Hank would sing convincingly about having a rowdy time ("Honky Tonkin'") and womanizing ("Hey Good Lookin'"), but his religious songs conveyed a sense of real piety and repentance, most particularly, the title track to the album "I Saw The Light." One of his most poetic songs was "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry," whose lyrics contain the following stanza:
- Did you ever see a robin weep
- When leaves begin to die
- That means he's lost the will to live
- I'm so lonesome I could cry
- The silence of a falling star
- Lights up a purple sky
- And as I wonder where you are
- I'm so lonesome I could cry
Williams' remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery, Alabama. His funeral, as of 2005, was still the largest such event ever held in Montgomery.
Hank Williams was one of the first three inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2003 Country Music Television ranked him number two of the 40 Greatest Men in Country Music.
In 2008 publishing company Time Life, under an exclusive agreement with Jett Williams and Hank Williams Jr., announced the release the “Mother’s Best” recordings. A collection of 143 never before released songs will be available over three years, increasing the number of known Hank Williams' recordings by 50 percent.
|1947||"Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)"||—||"Calling You"|
|1947||"Wealth Won't Save Your Soul"||—||"When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels"|
|1947||"My Love for You (Has Turned to Hate)"||—||"I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)"|
|1947||"Pan American"||—||"Honky Tonkin'"|
|1947||"Move It On Over"||#4||"I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep"|
|1947||"On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain"||—||"Fly Trouble"|
|1948||"My Sweet Love Ain't Around"||—||"Rootie Tootie"|
|1948||"Honky Tonkin'"||#14||"I'll Be a Bachelor 'Til I Die"|
|1948||"I'm a Long Gone Daddy"||#6||"The Blues Come Around"|
|1948||"I Saw the Light"||—||"Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)"|
|1948||"A Mansion on the Hill"||—||"I Can't Get You Off of My Mind"|
|1949||"Lovesick Blues"||#1||"Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)"|
|1949||"Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)"||#6||b-side of "Lovesick Blues”|
|1949||"Wedding Bells"||#5||"I've Just Told Mama Goodbye"|
|1949||"Mind Your Own Business"||#5||"There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight"|
|1949||"You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)"||#4||"Lost Highway"|
|1949||"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"||#1||"My Bucket's Got a Hole In It"|
|1949||"My Bucket's Got a Hole In It"||#2||b-side to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry”|
|1950||"I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living"||#5||"May You Never Be Alone"|
|1950||"Long Gone Lonesome Blues"||#1||"My Son Calls Another Man Daddy"|
|1950||"My Son Calls Another Man Daddy"||#9||b-side to "Long Gone Lonesome Blues”|
|1950||"Why Don't You Love Me?"||#1||"A House Without Love"|
|1950||"Why Should We Try Anymore?"||#9||"They'll Never Take Her Love from Me"|
|1950||"They'll Never Take Her Love from Me"||#4||b-side to "Why Should We Try Anymore?”|
|1950||"Moanin' the Blues"||#1||"Nobody's Lonesome for Me"|
|1950||"Nobody's Lonesome for Me"||#9||b-side to "Moanin' the Blues”|
|1951||"Cold, Cold Heart"||#1||"Dear John"|
|1951||"Dear John"||#6||b-side to "Cold, Cold Heart”|
|1951||"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)"||#2||"Howlin' at the Moon"|
|1951||"Howlin' at the Moon"||#3||b-side to "I Can't Help It”|
|1951||Hey Good Lookin'"||#1||"My Heart Would Know"|
|1951||"(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle"||#9||"Crazy Heart"|
|1951||"Crazy Heart"||#2||b-side to "Lonesome Whistle”|
|1951||"Baby, We're Really in Love"||#4||"I'd Still Want You"|
|1952||"Honky Tonk Blues"||#2||"I'm Sorry for You, My Friend"|
|1952||"Half as Much"||#2||"Let's Turn Back the Years"|
|1952||"Jambalaya (On the Bayou)"||#1||"Window Shopping"|
|1952||"Settin' the Woods on Fire"||#3||"You Win Again"|
|1952||"You Win Again"||#7||b-side of "Settin' the Woods on Fire”|
|1952||"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"||#1||"I Could Never Be Ashamed of You"|
|1953||"Kaw-Liga"||#1||"Your Cheatin' Heart"|
|1953||"Your Cheatin' Heart"||#1||b-side to "Kaw-Liga”|
|1953||"I Won't Be Home No More"||#4||"Take These Chains from My Heart"|
|1953||"Take These Chains from My Heart"||#1||b-side to "I Won't Be Home No More”|
|1953||"Weary Blues from Waitin'"||#7||no b-side|
|1955||"Please Don't Let Me Love You"||#9||no b-side|
|1966||"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"||#43||re-release|
|1976||"Why Don't You Love Me"||#61||re-release|
|1989||"There's a Tear in My Beer"||#7||dubbed recording with Hank Williams, Jr.|
Selected cover versions from Hank Williams’ songbook
- Frankie Laine covered "Ramblin' Man" in 1952, “Your Cheatin' Heart” in 1953, “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1968, and “Jambalaya” in 1986. He and Jo Stafford cut duet versions of “Hey Good Lookin'” in 1951, and of “Settin' the Woods on Fire” in 1952.
- "Lovesick Blues" was covered by Patsy Cline (1960), as well as by Ryan Adams (2001) and George Strait (1992). (Note: Hank Williams covered "Lovesick Blues" himself. The song was originally recorded by Emmett Miller.)
- "I'm So Lonesome I could Cry" was covered by B. J. Thomas in 1966, Al Green and the Grateful Dead in 1972, and Elvis Presley on his historic Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii in 1973.
- James Brown covered "Your Cheatin' Heart" in 1969.
- The Blue Ridge Rangers, (in reality, a solo album by John Fogerty), covered "Jambalaya" on the 1973 album Blue Ridge Rangers.
- The Carpenters covered "Jambalaya" on their 1973 album Now & Then.
- Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris' covered "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" in 1974.
- George Thorogood and the Destroyers covered "Move It On Over" (1978).
- Huey Lewis & the News covered "Honky Tonk Blues" on the album Sports (1983).
- The Red Hot Chili Peppers covered "Why Don't You Love Me" on their self-titled debut album (1984).
- The Residents covered "Hey Good Lookin'," "Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)," "Kaw-Liga," "Ramblin' Man," "Jambalaya," and "Sousaside" on their 1986 album
Stars & Hank Forever: The American Composers Series.
- "Just Waitin'" (by Williams' pseudonym, Luke the Drifter) was covered by The Fall in 1992.
- Jimmie Dale Gilmore covered "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on Spinning Around the Sun (1993), and "I'll Never Get Out of the World Alive" on Come on Back (2005).
- The The did an entire album of Hank Williams covers called Hanky Panky (1995).
- Social Distortion covered "Alone and Forsaken" on their 1997 Canadian promotional EP, When the Angels Sing.
- Mike Ness of Social Distortion covered "You Win Again" on his solo album Cheating at Solitaire (1999), and "Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)" and "A House of Gold" on his follow-up solo album, Under the Influences (1999).
- Van Morrison and Linda Gail Lewis covered "You Win Again," "Jambalaya," and "Why Don't You Love Me" on the CD You Win Again (2000). Also, Morrison covered "Your Cheatin' Heart" on Pay the Devil (2006).
- The Melvins covered "Ramblin' Man," with vocals provided by Hank Williams III, on their 2000 release The Crybaby.
- Johnny Dowd covers "Pictures From Life's Other Side" on Pictures From Life's Other Side (2001).
- Norah Jones covered "Cold, Cold Heart" on Come Away With Me in 2002.
- Johnny Cash covered "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on American IV: The Man Comes Around (2003). Also, Cash covered "On the Evening Train" on American V: A Hundred Highways (2006).
- Madeleine Peyroux covered ""Weary Blues from Waitin'" on Careless Love in 2004.
- Martina McBride recorded "You Win Again" on her 2005 album of country standards, Timeless.
- The Saints (Lincoln, Nebraska) covered "Lost Highway" and "Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)" on their 2005 release A New Kind of Patriot.
- Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell covered "Ramblin' Man" for their album Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006).
- Josh Pearson formerly of Lift to Experience covered "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" in 2006.
- Williams' grandson, Hank Williams III, did a cover of "I Could Never Be Ashamed Of You" on disc two of his 2006 album Straight to Hell.
- Bob Dylan has played live covers of Williams' songs throughout his career, including "You Win Again," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Lost Highway," and "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle." He also performed an impromptu version of "Lost Highway" in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don't Look Back.
- Many country artists have done Hank Williams tribute albums, including: Charlie Pride, George Jones, and bluegrass veteran Larry Sparks.
Songs that pay tribute to Hank Williams include:
- "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life" by Moe Bandy (written by Paul Craft)
- "The Ride" and "The Ghost of Hank Williams" by David Allan Coe
- "Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen
- "Alcohol and Pills" by Fred Eaglesmith
- "The Life of Hank Williams" by Hawkshaw Hawkins
- "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" and "If Old Hank Could Only See Us Now" by Waylon Jennings
- "The Ghost of Hank Williams" by the Kentucky Headhunters
- "If You Don't Like Hank Williams" by Kris Kristofferson
- "Things Change" by Tim McGraw
- "That Heaven Bound Train" by Johnny Rion (also covered by Carl Shrum)
- "Mission from Hank" by Aaron Tippin
- "Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?" by the Waterboys
- "Family Tradition" by Hank Williams, Jr.
- "From Hank to Hendrix" and "This Old Guitar" by Neil Young
- Escott, Colin. 1994. Hank Williams: The Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316249866
- Hemphill, Paul. 2005. Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 0670034142
- The Time-Life Country and Western Classics: Hank Williams, 2. Quoted in Brackett, David. 2000. Interpreting Popular Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0520225414.
All links retrieved July 26, 2017.
- Official Website
- Hank Williams at the Country Music Hall of Fame – 1961 Inductee biography adapted from The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.
- Hank Williams at PBS – American Masters
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