There was Snow and Thompson and Locklin. Then there was Cochran, the songwriter, and Junior is still out there singing his dad’s songs. They were among the “Hank’s” of country music, but when that name stands alone, it refers to only man—Hank Williams.
He lived the proverbial “short life full of trouble.” He knew heartache and pain, drunkenness and faith, love and lust, success and emptiness, and poverty and wealth. He not only sang country songs but defined country music from his time to ours. His life was a struggle hanging on—hanging on to singing jobs, marriage, success, and sanity itself amidst the pains he endured.
His songs made the charts thirty-five times with eleven of those songs reaching the number one spot. His singing career, which started when he was fourteen, ended with his death at age twenty-nine. It wasn’t long, yet that was enough to create a legend. His popularity soared during his life and after his death, continuing up to the present. After Hank, all aspiring country singers tipped their cowboy hats to him, and most sang his songs. Others sang about him. George Jones sang about Hank in his tribute song to the greats called “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”; and Waylon Jennings protested the music industry singing, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Johnny Cash sung about “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town,” and Hank, Jr., has many songs about his father, with “Family Tradition” being the best known.
Hank Williams was a tall, lanky, and thin-faced man, with a youthful look that quickly aged with the toll of his lifestyle. It is easy to picture him plowing a field, working in a coal mine, or sawing timber at a sawmill. Working class folks were his element. But hard physical work was beyond his reach. Born with spina bifida, he lived with back pain and turned to music, in part, as an outlet for his need to work and cope.
His musical training was typical of many country singers. With a guitar his mother bought from peanut sales, Hank learned some chords and chord progressions from an old black man named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. Williams never learned how to read music, but he listened to the music all around him. WSM radio station out of Nashville connected him with the songs of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and other stars on the Grand Ole Opry. At a Baptist church where his mother played the organ, he learned the spiritual songs of his people. Listening outside on Sunday afternoons to the singing at black churches, he picked up the soulful music they sang.
When asked where his songs came from, he often said, “From God” and would go on to say that he just closed his mind and let God write them for him. In an interview late in his life, he gave a different answer. He said, “Every one of them songs come from them ole [negro] blues I learned when I was a kid playin’ guitar in Alabama.”
Hank sang gospel music, honky-tonk songs, variations of popular music, and blues. He blended, borrowed, and created songs. He was country through and through in all songs and ways. He said “winder” for window and “pitcher” for picture. Quitting school at an early age, he took to the road to tour with his band, as well as hosting radio shows. It was a good living for a poor boy in the years after the Great Depression.
A few recording sessions began putting his records and name out before a larger audience. In time, he became a staple act on the Louisiana Hayride, one of the legendary live country music performances. His first audition for the Grand Ole Opry was a failure, but when he was finally got his chance to sing there in 1949, he got called back for a record number of six encores.
He married Audrey Sheppard, and they had a son named Randall Hank Williams, who is better known now as Hank, Jr. Audrey served as Hank’s manager and insisted on singing along with him, in spite of not having a good singing voice.
Hank Williams produced a number of great hits. Ironically, many of the more enduring songs were the B-sides of his single recordings. His songs were often good dance tunes, with lively beats maintained by a rhythm guitar and occasionally a snare drum. He kept the songs under three minutes and twelve seconds because that was the limit for jukebox hits. Some of these songs were light-hearted, such as “Move It On Over” and “Jambalaya,” while others, such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “You Win Again,” were heartbreak songs.
Adopting the name “Luke the Drifter,” Hank recorded gospel songs and folk narratives of life experiences. Williams had a strong attraction to gospel music from both his childhood and his guilt-ridden life. It was in the back seat of a car while he was sleeping off too much alcohol after a concert that he composed his song “I Saw the Light.”
With marriage and family, recording contracts and hit records, millions of fans, and economic success, Williams’ story could have been a happy one. But there were choices along the way, along with that recurring back problem, made worse by the rigors and temptations, that turned his story into a tragedy.
Hank Williams lived a country song. Or perhaps he lived a wide variety of country songs. From his marriage, he knew a cheating heart and a cold, cold heart and lovesick blues. While his marriage’s breakup inspired songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” he sang both in and about honky tonks, and too often, Hank drank up much of his pay. Hank got on the worst end of some fist fights, spent time in jail, and missed concerts because he was too drunk to sing.
The drinking cost him jobs and caused his being fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Combined with the alcohol were pain killers he took for his back troubles. Infidelities killed his and Audrey’s marriage. He went on to a second marriage to Billy Jean Jones, which included two completely sold out public performances of the marriage ceremony. Between the two marriages, Williams fathered a child, Jett Williams, who in time proved her relationship to Hank and achieved success as a singer herself.
Hank Williams was a poet of the common man. He knew folks’ loves and laughs, pains and sufferings, their guilt and redemption, and triumphs and tragedies. He could make them laugh and make them cry. His pains and failures were mirrors to those of his fans.
It was the fans that kept him going, that put him on the road when he was too sick to travel, that drew him to the stage when he was too drunk to perform, and that gave him the words that touched so many lives.
Like the candle burning at both ends, the life of Hank Williams was bound to end early. The last fateful trip began with a trip from Montgomery where he stayed at the Redmont Hotel. Hank was scheduled to do a concert in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve and then another in Canton, Ohio, the next day.
Hank hired a college boy named Charlie Carr to drive him to the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he would take a flight to West Virginia. A snow storm stopped all air traffic. Carr realized that Hank was sick, so he got a doctor to see him. A couple of B12 shots and some pain killer was given, and then Hank spent the night in the Andrew Johnson Hotel. He had to be carried to the car the next morning. Carr headed on to Canton, Ohio, for the scheduled New Year’s Day concert. It was some hours later when Carr realized that Hank had missed his last concert.
The last song he released during his lifetime was called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” A year later, in 1953, his big hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was released. Somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 people came to Montgomery, Alabama, to file past Hank’s casket. His funeral was the biggest funeral gathering in the history of Montgomery. But even those numbers pale before the number of fans he continues to reach more than sixty years after his death.