Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Hiram Hank Williams, 17 September 1923, near Georgiana AL; d 1 January 1953 in the back seat of a chauffered Cadillac, somewhere in Virginia.) Singer-songwriter, the biggest star in the history of country music. His father was largely absent, something of an invalid because of WWI injuries; his mother was an extremely demanding woman, but perhaps had to be, running a household in extreme Southern poverty during the Depression. Williams was influenced by a black street singer called Tee-Tot (Rufe Payne), and started a band while still in school; he sang on KSFA radio (Montgomery) age 13 and served a long, hard apprenticeship in Southern honky tonks ('blood buckets'). He married Audrey in 1944 at a gas station; he took songs to Acuff-Rose in Nashville and made his first records for Sterling in 1946; he was booked on the Louisiana Hayride, and Fred Rose took him to the new MGM label in 1947. A sensational guest spot on Grand Ole Opry singing his hit 'Lovesick Blues' '49 (ironically a song older than he was) led to a contract, despite his reputation for unreliability and a lingering dislike of the honky-tonk genre at the Opry.

He often bought lyrics from others (a common practice in country music) and always had a pocketfull of scraps of paper with ideas and lines jotted down. Rose produced recording sessions and co-wrote some songs (but rarely took a credit); his son Wesley hawked them around to pop A&R men, and Mitch Miller said that Jerry Wexler deserved some credit too: Miller at Columbia assigned 'Cold, Cold Heart' to Tony Bennett, who didn't like Williams's record, but Bennett's was a no. 1 pop hit '51, and many more songs became crossovers: 'Half As Much' (Rosemary Clooney), 'Jambalaya' (Jo Stafford), 'Your Cheatin' Heart' (Frankie Laine, Joni James), 'There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight' (Bennett), 'Hey Good Lookin' ' (a duet by Laine and Stafford) were pop hits, and 'Kaw-Liga' got pop radio play, covered by Delores Gray and Champ Butler, while Williams's own recordings made the country chart: he had 27 top ten hits 1949-53. Among his others: 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Die', 'Baby We're Really In Love', 'Settin' The Woods On Fire', 'I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive' (which climbed the charts after he died). He insisted on using own band, the Drifting Cowboys, on recording sessions, not usual then, and allowed his sidemen to shine. Fiddler Jerry Rivers and steel guitarist Don Helms swooned and swaggered as necessary, never playing one note too many, and were an integral part of some of the greatest country records ever made.

In many ways Williams was a precursor of Elvis Presley as a culture hero: he was a perfect singer for the genre, with evident unforced sympathy for the predicament of his fans (mostly poor white Southerners), and a considerable effect on women causing many a fist-fight in the early days. He was also funky in performance: e.g. in 'I Won't Be Home No More', each group of words seems to be sung to a triplet, but the number of syllables is always more than three; in the centre of a line, two words may be sung on two different notes but apparently on same beat, while in their solos fiddler Jerry Rivers and steel guitarist Don Helms float over the beat: the result is an insouciant swagger which suits the bravado of the lyrics. Although he never read anything but comics and trade charts, his memorable (if sometimes interchangeable) tunes and simple rhyming lyrics added up to folk-poetry; he was one of the great modern troubadours. He wrote about 125 songs, including religious songs he called hymns; also sentimental/moralizing monologues as Luke the Drifter. He was an alcoholic and addicted to painkillers (probably due to an untreated birth defect, spina bifida). Much of his material (both happy and sad) came out of his stormy eight-year marriage to Audrey, who wanted to be a star herself (without much talent, though they recorded duets). He was divorced, remarried (to Betty Jean Jones, who later married Johnny Horton) and fired from the Opry, all in 1952, and his last few months were hell: he returned to the Hayride and planned a comeback, but didn't make it.

The songs and records are still selling; the number of covers is astronomical, from Elvis Costello to the Carpenters; his influence is incalculable. Bob Dylan, Elvin Bishop and Bruce Springsteen were among many pop and rock people to pay tribute. 'Jambalaya' charted in Europe '76; a live recording from the Opry stage ('Why Don't You Love Me') also hit in the USA 23 years after his death. Among many compilations, The Immortal Hank Williams had the complete recordings on ten LPs from Japan; Polydor issued the complete series on two-disc sets in the West; On The Air '86 was a set of air checks from 1949-52 on Polydor but compiled by the Country Music Foundation. There was a two-CD set of the hits but a three-CD set The Original Singles Collection--Plus was better value; Health And Happiness Shows on Mercury Nashville were radio transcriptions. Rare Demos -- First To Last from the Country Music Foundation combined two earlier LPs, but some tracks are still apparently not on CD: a rough but fascinating 'Low Down Blues' (once issued in an overdubbed version on MGM LP Moanin' The Blues), plus demos he made for Rose of other people's songs, many once issued on 45 singles, e.g. 'I Wish I Had A Nickel', 'There's No Room In My Heart For The Blues', 'Please Don't Let Me Love You' etc.

Biographies include From Life To Legend '64 by Jerry Rivers, Sing A Sad Song '70 by Roger M. Williams (anecdotes, interviews with people who knew Hank; a 1980 edition included a discography by Bob Pinson), Hank Williams '79 by Jay Caress, Your Cheatin' Heart '81 by Chet Flippo (impressionistic treatment well done, with recent research); all superseded by Colin Escott's excellent Hank Williams -- The Biography '94 (with George Merritt and William MacEwan). Lovesick Blues 2005 by Paul Hemphill was a charming book by a country boy who grew up with his dad listening to Hank on the radio. The Hank Wiliams Reader was published by Oxford University Press in 2014, edited by Patrick Huber, Steve Goodson and David Anderson.

The biopic Your Cheatin' Heart '64 with George Hamilton was not highly regarded, but Hank Williams Jr overcame being the son of a famous father to achieve respect as a country star in his own right (see his entry). A privately-made acetate of 'There's A Tear In My Beer' '51 was discovered in 1989; the son was dubbed duetting with his father for an award-winning hit record and video; more overdubbing included Hank Jr's son Hank III in 1996, making three Hanks, surprisingly well done. (Hank III in particular seems to be as headstrong as his namesake, his performances sometimes raunchy and profane depending on his audience and the mood he's in.) Another Hank offspring, Jett Williams, his daughter from a brief relationship with Bobbie Jett, is also a performer.

In the late 1980s a stack of acetate discs was rescued from a dumpster in Nashville by an employee of WSM-AM which turned out to be broadcast transcription recordings Williams had made for the Mother's Best Flour Company in 1951. After a long battle over the ownership, the first instalment was released in late 2008 by Time-Life, a set of CDs containing 54 tracks and called The Unreleased Recordings. They reveal a man who, with all his problems, was not morose at all, but still intent on having a good time and entertaining his fans. At the same time there was an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy", covering the three generations of performers and featuring family artifacts never before seen in public.

Especially welcome to Lycrecia Williams Hoover, Audrey's daughter from an earlier marriage, who called Hank Daddy, was evidence in the exhibit of her mother's skill as a businesswoman. Lycrecia said it was Audrey who had pushed Hank out of the blood buckets and into a Nashville recording studio, who then became a single mom handling a valuable estate in the 1950s, and in 1964 founded Aud-Lee Attractions, Nashville’s oldest privately owned talent agency (now called Buddy Lee Attractions). Said to have felt guilty about not being able to save Hank from himself, Audrey slowly became an alcoholic herself, dying in 1975.