Hank Williams Biography

Hiram (misspelled on birth certificate as Hiriam) Williams, 17 September 1923, Georgiana, Alabama, USA, d. 1 January 1953, on the road between Montgomery, Alabama and Oak Hill, West Virginia, USA. Misspelling notwithstanding, Williams disliked the name and took to calling himself Hank. He was born with a spine defect that troubled him throughout his life, and which was further aggravated after being thrown from a horse when he was 17 years old. Initially, his parents, Lon and Lilly, ran a general store, but Lon later entered a veterans’ hospital following a delayed reaction to the horrors he had experienced during World War I. The young Williams was raised by his imposing, resourceful mother, who gave him a cheap guitar when he was seven. He learned chords from an elderly black musician, Teetot (Rufe Payne). Williams later said, ‘All the musical training I ever had came from him.’ It also explains the strong blues thread that runs through his work. In 1937, Lilly opened a boarding house in Montgomery, Alabama. Williams won a talent contest and formed his own band, the Drifting Cowboys. As clubs were tough, Hank hired a wrestler, Cannonball Nichols, as a bass player, more for protection than musical ability, but he could not be protected from his mother, who handled his bookings and earnings (in truth, Williams was not particularly interested in the money he made).

While working for a medicine show, he met Audrey Sheppard (b. 28 February 1923, Banks, Alabama, USA, d. 4 November 1975, Nashville, Tennessee, USA) and married her in December 1944. Although rivals, both his wife and his mother would thump the pale, lanky singer for his lack of co-operation. Williams was a local celebrity, but on 14 September 1946, he and Audrey went to Nashville, impressing Fred Rose and his son Wesley at the relatively new Acuff-Rose publishers. On 11 December 1946 Williams made his first recordings for the small Sterling label. They included ‘Callin’ You’ and ‘When God Comes And Gathers His Jewels’. Fred Rose secured a contract with the more prestigious MGM Records, and he acted as his manager, record producer and, occasionally, co-writer (‘Mansion On The Hill’, ‘Kaw-liga’). Williams’ first MGM release, ‘Move It On Over’, sold several thousand copies. He then joined the prestigious radio show The Louisiana Hayride in 1948 and was featured on its concert tours. Fred Rose opposed him reviving ‘Lovesick Blues’, originally recorded by Emmett Miller in 1925, and later a success for Rex Griffin in 1939; nevertheless, he recorded the song, following Miller’s and Griffin’s playful yodels. ‘Lovesick Blues’ topped the US country charts for 16 weeks and remained in the listings for almost a year. The Grand Ole Opry, although wary of his hard-drinking reputation, invited him to perform ‘Lovesick Blues’, which led to an unprecedented six encores.

He and the Drifting Cowboys became regulars and the publicity enabled them to command $1, 000 for concert appearances; they even upstaged comedian and film star Bob Hope. ‘Wedding Bells’ made number 2, as did a contender for the greatest country single ever released, the poignant ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, backed with the old blues song, ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’; the Grand Ole Opry sponsors, disapproving of the word ‘beer’ in the latter song, made Williams sing ‘milk’ instead. In 1950, he had three country number 1 hits, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’ and ‘Moanin’ The Blues’. The following year, he had two further chart-toppers with ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ and ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’. Another superb double-sided hit, ‘Howlin’ At The Moon’/‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’, made number 2. In 1952, Williams went to number 1 with his praise of Cajun food in ‘Jambalaya’, while ‘Half As Much’ made number 2. Another well-balanced double-sided hit, ‘Settin’ The Woods On Fire’/‘You Win Again’, made number 2. Williams was a showman, often wearing a flashy suit embroidered with sequins and decorated with musical notes. Although MGM studios considered making films with him, nothing materialized. It is arguable that, with his thinning hair, he looked too old, or it may have been that he was just too awkward. His lifestyle was akin to the later spirit of rock ‘n’ roll; he drank too much, took drugs (admittedly, excessive numbers of painkillers for his back), played with guns, destroyed hotel rooms, threw money out of windows and permanently lived in conflict. His son, Hank Williams Jnr. , said, ‘I get sick of hearing people tell me how much they loved my daddy. They hated him in Nashville.’

Williams’ songs articulated the lives and loves of his listeners and he went a stage further by recording melodramatic monologues as Luke The Drifter. They included ‘Beyond The Sunset’, ‘Pictures From Life’s Other Side’, ‘Too Many Parties And Too Many Pals’ and ‘Men With Broken Hearts’. Although Luke the Drifter’s appeal was limited, Fred Rose saw how Williams’ other songs could have wide appeal. Country songs had been recorded by pop performers before Williams, but Rose aggressively sought cover versions. Soon Tony Bennett (‘Cold, Cold Heart’), Jo Stafford (‘Jambalaya’) and Joni James (‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’) had gold records. Williams’ wife, ‘Miss Audrey’, also made solo records, but Williams knew her talent was limited. She was frustrated by her own lack of success and many of Williams’ songs stemmed from their quarrels. They were divorced on 29 May 1952 and, as Williams regarded possessions as unimportant, she was awarded their house and one half of all his future royalties. He did, however, have the sadness of losing custody of his son.

Like any professional show, the Grand Ole Opry preferred sober nondescripts to drunk superstars, and on 11 August 1952, Williams was fired and told that he could return when he was sober. However, Williams did not admit to his problem, joking about missing shows and falling off stage. He lost Fred Rose’s support, the Drifting Cowboys turned to Ray Price, and, although The Louisiana Hayride tolerated his wayward lifestyle, his earnings fell and he was reduced to playing small clubs with pick-up bands. When Williams met the 19-year-old daughter of a policeman, Billie Jean Jones, he said, ‘If you ain’t married, ol’ Hank’s gonna marry you.’ On 19 October 1952 he did just that - three times. First, before a Justice of the Peace in Minden, Louisiana, and then at two concerts at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium before several thousand paying guests. The newlyweds spent Christmas with relations in Georgiana, Alabama. His biggest booking for some time was on New Year’s Day 1953 with Hawkshaw Hawkins and Homer And Jethro in Canton, Ohio, but because of a blizzard, Williams’ plane was cancelled. An 18-year-old taxi driver, Charles Carr, was hired to drive Williams’ Cadillac. They set off, Williams having a bottle of whiskey for company. He sank into a deep sleep. A policeman who stopped the car for ignoring speed restrictions remarked, ‘That guy looks dead’. Five hours later, Carr discovered that his passenger was indeed dead.

Death was officially owing to ‘severe heart attack with haemorrhage’, but alcohol and pills played their part. At the concert that night, the performers sang Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’ in tribute. An atmospheric stage play, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, by Maynard Collins, filmed with Sneezy Waters in the title role, showed what might have happened had Williams arrived that night. Some commentators took Williams’ then-current number 1, ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’, as an indication that he knew he had little time left. Chet Atkins, who played ‘dead string rhythm’ on the record, disagreed: ‘All young men of 28 or 29 feel immortal and although he wrote a lot about death, he thought it was something that would happen when he got old.’ 20, 000 saw Williams’ body as it lay in state in an embroidered Nudie suit (designed by Miss Audrey) at the Montgomery Municipal Auditorium. His shrine in Montgomery Oakwood Cemetery is the subject of Steve Young’s song, ‘Montgomery In The Rain’.

1953 was a remarkable year for his records. ‘Kaw-Liga’, inspired by a visit to South Alabama and backed by ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, went to the top of the chart, and his third consecutive posthumous number 1 was with Hy Heath and Fred Rose’s ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’. MGM, desperate for fresh material, overdubbed a backing onto demos for ‘Weary Blues From Waitin’’ and ‘Roly Poly’ - Hank Williams was the first deceased star to have his recordings altered. Albums of Hank Williams with strings and duets with his son followed. In 1969, Hank Jnr. completed some of his father’s scribblings for an album, Songs My Father Left Me, the most successful being ‘Cajun Baby’. In recent years, Williams and Willie Nelson proved a popular duo with ‘I Told A Lie To My Heart’, while a battered demo of ‘There’s A Tear In My Beer’, which had been given by Williams to Big Bill Lister to perform, was magically restored with the addition of Hank Williams Jnr.’s voice and, accompanied by an even more ingenious video, sold 250, 000 copies.

Hank Williams recorded around 170 different songs between 1946 and 1952, and there are over 230 and around 130 ‘Tribute to Hank Williams’ albums that have also been recorded, not only by country artists, but by artists including Spike Jones, Del Shannon and Hardrock Gunter. The first was ‘The Death Of Hank Williams’ by disc jockey Jack Cardwell. Other contemporary ones included ‘Hank, It Will Never Be The Same Without You’ by Ernest Tubb, ‘Hank Williams Will Live Forever’ by Johnnie And Jack, ‘The Life Of Hank Williams’ by Hawkshaw Hawkins and ‘Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers’ by Virginia Rounders. Most tributes lack inspiration, are too morbid and too reverent, and are recorded by artists who would usually never enter a recording studio. The most pertinent tributes are Moe Bandy’s reflective ‘Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life’, Johnny Cash’s jaunty ‘The Night Hank Williams Came To Town’, Tim Hardin’s plaintive ‘Tribute To Hank Williams’, Kris Kristofferson’s rousing ‘If You Don’t Like Hank Williams’ and Emmylou Harris’ isolated ‘Rollin’ And Ramblin’’. Hank Williams is the Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry; his influence on Moe Bandy, George Jones, Vernon Oxford and Boxcar Willie is especially marked. They have all recorded albums of his songs, as have Roy Acuff, Glen Campbell, Floyd Cramer, Don Gibson, Ronnie Hawkins, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, Jack Scott, Del Shannon and Ernest Tubb. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt and Richard Thompson have also appropriated his repertoire.

Major UK chart hits include ‘Lovesick Blues’ by Frank Ifield, ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ by Ray Charles, and ‘Jambalaya’ by the Carpenters. Before Williams was laid to rest, Lilly, Audrey and Billie Jean were squabbling for the rights to Williams’ estate. Audrey’s name is on his tombstone, and the inaccurate 1964 biopic, Your Cheatin’ Heart, which starred George Hamilton as Hank Williams, miming to Hank Williams Jnr.’s recordings, did not even mention Billie Jean. Both wives performed as Mrs. Hank Williams, and Billie Jean was widowed a second time when Johnny Horton died in 1960. Another development has been the claims of Jett Williams, the illegitimate daughter of Williams and Bobbie Jett (b. 1923, d. 17 April 1974), who was born three days after his death.

The pressures Williams suffered in his life appear to have sharpened his awareness and heightened his creative powers. His compact, aching songs flow seamlessly and few have improved upon his own emotional performances. Hank Williams is the greatest country singer and songwriter who ever lived. His plaque in the Country Music Hall Of Fame states: ‘The simple beautiful melodies and straightforward plaintive stories in his lyrics of life as he knew it will never die.’

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.