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Hank Williams

For all the mystery, myth and misinformation surrounding the life and times of Hank Williams, one truth remains unchallenged: no one in the history of country music (perhaps in all of popular music) has so profoundly influenced those who followed. It is now more than forty years since his passing—far more time than he spent on earth—and still he serves as the model for countless singers. Still, his songs are cited as the highest standard of the writer’s craft, and the image of this fragile young man, standing onstage pouring out his soul in defiance of physical pain and inner demons, continues to inspire. That he was quickly consumed—some would say by the very forces that fueled his singular talent—remains a lesson in the price of excess.

Hiriam Williams (he was called “Harm” until adolescence, when he chose Hank as a more suitable performer’s moniker) was born in Mount Olive West, Alabama (near Georgiana) on September 17th, 1923. His father would be absent for most of his childhood due to extended hospitalization and, later, divorce. That left the raising of Hank and sister Irene to their mother, Lillie. By 1930 the three were living in Georgiana, where Lillie worked as a nurse and took in boarders. They moved further north to Greenville in 1934, then to Montgomery in 1937. She was, by all accounts, a strong-willed and domineering woman, and throughout Hank’s career she was nearly as driven toward her son’s success as he was.

Sometime before leaving Georgiana, Hank met Rufus Payne, a local black bluesman known as “Tee-Tot.” Hank would later credit the old street musician as having given him “all the music training I ever had,” and most biographers agree that the noticeable blues thread in all of Hank’s music probably came from Payne. Hank’s calling was clear by the time he’d reached his early teens. Too frail for athletics (he was born with spina bifida) and uninterested in academic subjects, he quit school shortly after his sixteenth birthday. By then, Hank was already an experienced street performer and had done several live performances, but he longed to appear on radio and pestered the employees of Montgomery’s station WSFA for an opportunity. He made his debut in late 1936 or early 1937—the exact date, like much information on Hank’s early life, depends on who tells the story. He would appear more or less regularly for some eleven years.

For many, the Williams legend is rooted in his seemingly rapid rise to prominence and tragic, early demise. In truth, Hank’s “overnight success” was preceded by long, hard years of performing in beer joints, on regional shows and on local radio, with occasional stints as a shipyard worker during slow periods. Lillie would drive the band, already named the Drifting Cowboys, to venues in her station wagon and collect the gate. With his decidedly hillbilly style and loose onstage patter, Hank was easily one of the area’s most popular entertainers. He came to the attention of country music’s movers and shakers from time to time, so stardom might have come much earlier—he was known, in fact, to his idol, Roy Acuff. But his reputation as a singer was already matched by the one he’d built for hard drinking and unreliability. Most considered him an unsafe bet.

In 1943 Hank met Audrey Mae Sheppard, an Alabama country girl with a two-year-old daughter, Lycrecia, from a previous marriage. Audrey and Hank were both immediately smitten, and the pretty blonde soon became a formidable rival of Lillie—competing not only for Hank’s attention, but for involvement in his career as well. She learned to play stand-up bass (well enough to work with the band) and began to act as manager. She also took on the job of trying to keep Hank in line, hunting him down and sobering him up in time for the night’s work or bailing him out of local jails. They were married in December, 1944. Audrey desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a singer, at least as her husband’s duet partner, and each forward step in his career increased the tension in their already volatile relationship. Hank knew as well as anyone that her talent was marginal at best, but included her when pressured in the interest of domestic tranquility. She went with him to Nashville in 1946 to meet publisher Fred Rose.

Hank had begun writing songs shortly after he started singing and playing guitar. Rose, in partnership with Roy Acuff, ran a successful “hillbilly” publishing concern (Acuff-Rose, later a giant in the industry) and at first was interested in Williams only as a writer. Within the year, however, Rose had made Hank’s singing career a pet project, and arranged for him to record four songs to be issued on Sterling Records. (Hank had recorded a few times on his own, but the Sterling sessions account for his first significant commercial releases.) The records received critical approval and limited airplay, which increased Hank’s stock as a regional performer. Still, he was an unknown outside the WSFA listening area. In March 1947, in a deal engineered by Rose, Hank signed with MGM. The label was only two years old, but as a division of the powerful Loews Corporation, it was well-financed.

“Move It On Over” was Hank’s first MGM release, and his first “Billboard” chart entry. Anticipating his first taste of serious money, he borrowed enough for a down payment on a house in Montgomery. Life, it seemed, was about to get much better. So popular were Hank’s WSFA shows that the station was forced to overlook his drinking and his live appearances were drawing bigger crowds. But life at home was more stressful than ever; Audrey was clearly being left in her husband’s professional dust, and her reaction was to press even harder for inclusion. Hank made a few half-hearted efforts to appease, but focused mainly on songwriting and his own career. He charted again in April, 1948 with “Honky Tonkin’,” but he had already entered the low arc of a cycle that would occur over and over in his life— Hank was bottoming out. He had been committed (briefly) to a sanatorium after a binge in the early spring of 1948, prompting a letter from Rose in which he refused to advance the singer any more money, and said he was “fed up with all the foolishness.” Less than a month later, Audrey filed for divorce.

Hank’s story could easily have ended there, but the Williamses reconciled, the relationship with Rose was mended, and Rose set about finding an avenue for greater exposure. The dream, of course, was the Grand Ole Opry. Hank was now known to Nashville’s country music powerbrokers, but mostly for being more trouble than he was worth. The Opry would have nothing to do with him. KWKH, in Shreveport, Louisiana was interested, however. The station had just started a Saturday night show called “The Louisiana Hayride.” With fifty-thousand watts, KWKH covered much of the eastern U.S.. The Williamses moved to Shreveport and Hank joined the show in August. The Hayride would be the first real step toward stardom for many performers in the coming years; first among them was Hank.

By now Hank’s third MGM release, “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” was out. The label scrambled for a follow-up—a recording ban had been in effect for months, and even with the Sterling masters it had purchased from Rose, MGM was running out of Williams’ good material. The next four releases, including “I Saw The Light” and “Pan American” failed to chart. “Mansion On The Hill” reached number 12. Like many of Hank’s melodies, the latter’s was “borrowed” note-for-note from an older song.

With the ban over, Hank and Audrey (now pregnant with Hank Jr.) traveled to Cincinnati for Hank’s first recording session in more than a year. “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” was scheduled, as were two other original songs. For a fourth, Hank insisted on “Lovesick Blues,” a song he’d known for years. Rose and the backup musicians expressed unanimous dislike for the tune, but Hank was adamant. Two takes were recorded during the session’s final half-hour. The impact of those thirty minutes can still be felt today.

"Lovesick Blues” charted on March 5th, 1949. Just over two months later it reached number one, where it stayed for sixteen weeks. (Hank Jr. was born during its run, on May 26th.) MGM next released “Wedding Bells,” which reached number two. Finally, Hank was too big for even the Opry to ignore. After an initial June 11th appearance on the non-network portion of the show, he made his official debut on June 18th (singing, of course, “Lovesick Blues”). Legend maintains that he was called back for several encores—in fact, there were none, but he was well-received. It now seemed that all Hank had to do was keep writing, keep singing... and stay sober. For a while, he did all three. The Williamses bought a house in Nashville, which Audrey furnished at great expense. As his next four releases climbed the charts, Hank toured with the Opry’s top stars. By year’s end, he’d seen Europe, placed eight songs on the “Billboard” charts and sold more records in the country field than anyone but Eddy Arnold. Sadly, he’d also taken a serious fall from the wagon.

As a songwriter, Hank had truly hit his stride. Those close to him attest to his near-fanatical dedication; he wrote constantly on the road, and with Fred Rose whenever he had a few days in Nashville. Increasingly, the subject matter of his tunes reflected his troubled home life with Audrey; “Mind Your Own Business,” “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “Why Should We Try Any More” ... all were mirror reflections of reality for anyone who knew the pair. Hank also began to write and record recitations as “Luke The Drifter” (the pseudonym was insisted upon by Rose). He was traveling almost constantly, usually by car, and the long hours in back seats aggravated his back condition. Hank was also drinking hard again, which didn’t help. His band members developed the routine of dropping him by the hospital to dry out on their way back into town. As 1951 drew to a close, he was in constant pain, nearly always drunk, and brooding about his domestic situation most of the time. A fall during a December hunting trip finally forced him into the hospital for a back operation. On January 10, 1952, Audrey again filed for divorce. This time, the split would be permanent.

Incredibly, Hank’s success had created as much financial stress as it cured. On his own now, having lost big in the settlement with Audrey, he was also in hock to WSM. He resumed his performing schedule in late January, but was increasingly undependable. By spring, promoters knew the chances of his showing up and playing sober were about fifty-fifty. Still, he was far and away the biggest star in country; “Cold, Cold Heart” had been the top song of ‘51, and “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” had both gone to number one. By mid-summer, 1952, Hank’s recording career was the only part of his life that wasn’t headed downhill. He’d met and courted a woman from Shreveport, Billie Jean Jones, but the relationship ran into trouble shortly after they became engaged. Bobbie Jett, a secretary with whom he’d had a fling, was pregnant and claimed him as the father. (Hank eventually signed an agreement to provide for the child.) After several missed Opry spots, Hank was fired from the show in August. One by one, his friends began to believe he was beyond hope.

Nashville, it seemed, had seen enough of Hank Williams. For his part, Hank felt more or less the same. He sold his Williamson County farm and headed back to Louisiana, rejoining the Hayride in September. By October, he and Billie Jean had gotten back together and were married. (Twice—first in a civil ceremony and later in front of a paying audience of 15,000.) Hank began booking road dates out of Louisiana. Each was an exercise in pain management; his back had not been allowed to heal properly from the operation. Now addicted to painkillers as well as alcohol and suffering from a heart condition, Hank spun hopelessly out of control. Sober, his performances were said to be riveting, but those dates became more and more rare. Members of his camp would usually explain that he was sick. In the larger sense, it was the truth. By mid-December he was in trouble with the Hayride. By some accounts, he was given a leave of absence; others say he was fired or quit. Whatever the case, Hank was running out of second chances.

Hank was booked to ring in 1953 with shows in Charleston, West Virginia and Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Charles Carr, a college student, was hired to drive him from Lillie’s place in Montgomery to the Charleston show. They left before noon on December 30. Snow was falling when they reached Chattanooga, and by Knoxville they realized that the only way for Hank to make the date was to book a flight. Shortly after takeoff, the plane was forced back to Knoxville by the worsening weather. Charleston was out. When Carr booked them into Knoxville’s Andrew Johnson Hotel, Hank was in terrible shape - Carr suspected that he’d snuck a few drinks. He was visited by a doctor who gave him two shots of morphine and B12. Rumor has suggested that he received injections from another doctor earlier in the day. Bent on making the Canton date, Carr watched as porters loaded the barely-conscious singer into his Cadillac and took off an hour or so before midnight.

Exactly when and where Hank Williams died is unknown. Some believe he was already dead by the time Carr pulled out of Knoxville; others speculate it was somewhere along the highway in the early hours of January 1. Carr was pulled over for reckless driving shortly after midnight and explained to the patrolman that his passenger was merely tired and sick. By early morning, Carr realized the worst, and drove to a hospital in Oak Hill, West Virginia. Hank was pronounced dead at 7:00 am. He was 29 years old.

Dozens of country’s elite attended the funeral in Montgomery. A plane was chartered for Opry cast members, and nearly 3,000 mourners packed the Municipal Auditorium for the public service—another 15-20,000 stood outside. Audrey, Billie Jean and Lillie observed an uneasy peace during the ceremony.

Three of Hank’s recordings reached the top of the charts after his death; “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Kaw-Liga” and “Take These Chains From My Heart.” By 1954, his earthly voice silenced, the fragile young man from Alabama was only a legend. But Hank Williams’ few torrid years in the limelight changed country music forever, and his musical legacy remains its cornerstone.