Hank Williams - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Hank Williams was the single most important and influential singer-songwriter in country music. Widely known as the "Hillbilly Shakespeare," Williams was a fervently poetic misfit whose raw, expressive vocals and intensely emotional writing style combined into a powerhouse presentation that codified modern honky tonk even as it anticipated rockabilly and significantly raised the bar for country music's lyrical content. Literally idolized by both his fans and colleagues, Williams was also one of biggest sellers of his day, and his song catalog, loaded with such enduring, time-tested classics as "Cold Cold Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Jambalaya" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" still generates such tremendous royalties that the annual amount earned remains a closely held family secret. Williams' short, troubled and ultimately  tragic existence--fraught with drama, moments of exquisite beauty, shameful lows and exultant highs--played out just like one of his own songs, and his sudden death at age 29 struck the final dark chord in one of the most legendary musical lives in modern American history.


            Born Hiriam King Williams (thanks to a birth certificate spelling error) on September 17, 1923 in rural Mount Olive, Alabama, he and his sister Irene were essentially raised single-handedly by their mother Lillian, a notoriously hard-nosed woman (their father, an injured WWI veteran required longterm care at a VA hospital) and as the family grew, all faced the dire hardship of the Great Depression.  As a child, Williams learned guitar--and the art of entertaining--at the knee of Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, an African-American street musician whose influence on the youth has rendered Payne into a near mythological figure. Williams' path was set.  In 1937, the family re-located to Montgomery, Alabama. As a teenager, Williams formed the first line-up of his Drifting Cowboys band and, billed as "the Singing Kid," began broadcasting on radio station WSFA performing country hits of the day, alot of Roy Acuff's songs and announcing whatever upcoming appearances the band had booked. They worked regularly at barn dances and beer joints, and Williams grew up in a flash, acquiring a fabled taste for whisky and cracking more than a few skulls whenever the crowd turned ugly (they often did; mother Lillian also had a reputation for KO'ing unruly patrons). 


            In 1944, Williams married an Alabama farm girl named Audrey Mae Sheppard, who immediately got herself into the act as upright bassist, wanna-be singer and also Williams' manager (a role which frequently required last-minute pre-gig hunts for the gone-off -drunk-somewhere singer) and by 1949, struck out for Nashville.

A meeting with song publisher Fred Rose who, duly impressed, arranged a recording session and the issue of Williams first release, the epochal classic "Honky Tonkin'" on the Sterling label. After Rose moved Williams to MGM Records, he released the blues-tinged "Move it on  Over" in early 1947 and scored his first Top 5 Country hit. An invitation to join the Shreveport radio station KWKH's Louisiana Hayride in 1948 brought Williams his first large scale exposure, and a screamingly meteoric ascent began.


            Hits followed as regularly as Williams recorded; a re-make of "Honky Tonkin'" made the Top Fifteen, followed by Top Ten entry "Long Gone Daddy." But his next MGM 78, a version of 1922 Broadway show tune "Lovesick Blues," is what really put Williams over the top. An instant number one country hit, the song led to a sensational appearance at the Grand Ole Opry where his extravagant blue yodel led the electrified audience to call him back onstage for a record six encores. One of the most talked about debuts in Opry history, Williams walked off the Ryman stage that night a bigger star than even his childhood hero Roy Acuff. "Lovesick Blues" stayed at the number one spot for 16 weeks (out of a ten month presence on the country charts) and also hit the pop chart's Top Twenty Five.


            His fans nurtured a cult-like devotion, and while the jug-eared, pinch-faced Williams was always piteously skinny (band members joked that if not for the seam in his trousers, he'd have no ass at all), in performance, Williams mesmerized his audience and women swooned as if he were Rudolph Valentino. With his guitar cradled mid-way up his chest, shoulders swaying and knees knocking together in a rhythmic wobble, he presented a compelling bandstand figure, and he drew capacity crowds wherever he appeared.  He knocked off hits easy as pie: "Mansion on the Hill," "Wedding Bells," "Never Again," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)." "Lost Highway" and "My Buckets Got a Hole in It" all clogged the country top twenty--and higher--in 1949 alone.


            The following year, Williams also began recording as Luke the Drifter, a solemn character who specialized in oft grim recitations, each with a chilling moral or spiritual message, aimed at the bereft and disenfranchised souls with whom he felt a special kinship. These demonstrated that Williams had a far greater range of concerns than his hits addressed and Luke the Drifter's examinations of poverty, oppression and moral turpitude stand as some of his most riveting work. But it was Hank Williams who reaped the rewards. His hits in 1950 included "Long Gone Lonesome Daddy," which cruised to number one and stayed for the next eight weeks, and another number one "Moanin' the Blues," but he was just getting started. With 1951's "Cold Cold Heart," Williams' scored another monster hit, one that haunted the country chart for eleven months. The song was an exercise in pure psychic pain, a piece of perfected work that reached deep into the soul itself.


            The mixture of simplicity and sophistication in Williams lyrics was highly unusual in early 1950s hillbilly, and that skill for turning a phrase led to another extraordinary achievement--the success his song met as pop crossovers; when Columbia A&R head brought "Cold Cold Heart" to a Tony Bennett session in 1951, the singer was flabbergasted, but the song took off and opened a pop floodgate: Williams’ songs were subsequently covered--in his lifetime--by Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, Helen O'Connell, Kay Starr and Teresa Brewer. For his part, Williams kept an ear tuned to pop radio; in a 1952 interview he lauded the eccentric pop star Johnnie Ray for his emotional sincerity and compared Ray's lachrymose performing style to the teary-eyed country tradition of Roy Acuff (the reporter also witnessed Williams throwing a half dozen pills down his gullet).


            An accidental fall in the autumn of 1951 had severely screwed up an already injured back (which had kept him out of military service in WWII), and after a surgery aimed at rectifying the condition never properly healed, Williams was swallowing more pills than ever . By January 1952, his marriage to Audrey was in tatters, his drinking and drug use was out of control and he was a mess. The noted country music promoter Connie B. Gay described Williams, toward the end of his life, as "a pile of shit with alcohol and pills mixed in it," and no one argued the point. But the hits continued throughout that year  "Honky Tonk Blues," "Jambalaya,"  "Half as Much," "Settin ' the Woods on Fire," "You Win Again," yet Williams was often in no shape to perform any of them. After missing several Grand Ole Opry dates, he finally showed up drunk there in August '52, and they fired him. Williams returned to the Louisiana Hayride and kept the party going. As Hayride regular Tommy Sands recalled, staffers would prop Williams up and pour an entire urn of coffee into him so he could somehow try to get through a show. While catting around  Louisiana, he met a young red-headed bombshell named Billie Jean Eshlimar; when the pair wed in October, they did so at a public service in New Orleans, where tens of thousands of paid attendees witnessed the ceremonies (they got hitched twice to accommodate the public). His life was becoming a freak show, but Williams was probably never sober enough to appreciate the fact.


            In January of 1953, Williams was set to play two shows (one on New Years Eve in Charleston, West Virginia and one on New Year's Day in Canton, Ohio) but bad weather grounded his flight; with an inexperienced kid at the wheel of his powder blue Cadillac, Williams set out to try and make the shows. As the myth goes, he was already very drunk, but toted along bottles of booze and fistfuls of chloral hydrate should additional fortification be required. It was; along the way, they stopped at a Knoxville, Tennessee hotel for a couple of hours and arranged for a doctor to come and give Williams two shots of Vitamin B12 and morphine. Williams had to be carried out to the Cadillac. When the kid finally pulled over just after day break somewhere near Oak Hill, West Virginia on the morning of January 1, 1953, Hank Williams, twenty nine years of age, the greatest of all country songwriters and the architect of country’s pop crossover phenomena, was dead. While officially ruled as “a heart attack due to excessive drinking,” it may have been a simple, good old-fashioned accidental overdose. Jukeboxes across the country blared his current release, “I’ll Never Got Out of This World Alive.“


            His funeral in Montgomery, Alabama drew a crowd of 20,000--the largest that city had seen since Jefferson Davis’ confederate presidential inaugural. Every major Opry star attended, forming a choir to perform Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” Not long after his death, MGM released “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” which stayed at number one for six weeks (four other posthumous hits followed that year). In 1961, Williams was a charter inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame (in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). In the years since his death, numerous country stars have not only covered his songs, but have also written many of their own about Williams (most notably, the critical Waylon Jennings title “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?”). Although  Williams left behind only a hundred or so songs, it’s a sure bet that Hank Williamks' music will always be playing somewhere.

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