Farewells: Hank Williams (1923 - 1953)

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Hank Williams
Hank Williams
Duane Allman
Over 50 years since his passing, Hank Williams continues to be one of the major country music stars. His classic songs, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin',"1" and "Jambalaya," remain country standards. His musical style and his dynamic personality have endured the test of time and left their mark on country singers who followed in his footsteps, greats such as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and George Strait.

Hank's special genius captured an emotion in the lyrics of his songs and expressed it in a voice that was tailor-made for his often dark and troubled music. His vocal style was the essence of what used to be called hillbilly music. Hank's enduring songs and tragically dissipated personal life continue to fascinate new generations of fans.

Hank was born on September 17, 1923, in a small Alabama farming community about 70 miles south of the state capital of Montgomery. His father was a railroad engineer, who was a victim of shell shock in World War 1, and subsequently spent many years in veterans' hospitals.

Hank's mother, who played the organ in church, began to teach her son gospel songs when he was just a little boy. By the time he was six, Hank was one of the youngest members of the church choir.

His parents bought him a guitar for his eighth birthday, and he taugh himself to play by watching other guitarists, including a black street musician known as Tee-Tot. In his early teens, Hank was teaching himself to play and sing the country songs that he heard on the family's radio.

He also started to sit in with other musicians. When he was 14 years old, Hank put together his own band, playing at hoedowns and other get-togethers. He also began to see such country stars as Roy Acuff whenever they passed through the southern part of Alabama for a live appearance.

Hank called his group the Drifting Cowboys, and they successfully auditioned for the manager of WSFA in Montgomery. He hired Hank an the band to perform regularly on the air. This association lasted for the next 10 years. Although Hank and the Drifting Cowboys were becoming well known regionally, it was only after he married his first wife, Audrey, that his reputation began to spread beyond his native Alabama.

Hank and Audrey met at a traveling medicine show. In 1944 they were married at an Alabama gas station. Audrey was a strong-willed woman who was happy to take control of Hank's career. She became his booking agent, road manager, an best promoter, and the shy singer was more than happy to relinquish these responsibilities to his wife. Audrey immediately began to increase the number of gigs Hank and his band played, and to book shows outside Alabama.

By 1946, when he and Audrey traveled to Nashville to secure a music publishing contract with the influential producer Fred Rose, Hank was already writing some of the songs that were to make him a country music superstar.

Rose, who was the head of the Acuff-Rose publishing firm, listened to a nervous Hank Williams sing several of his original songs. As a test, Rose asked Hank to write a song on the spot. The result was "Mansion on the Hill," a song that not only got Hank a publishing contract with Acuff-Rose but later became an often-recorded country standard.

Over the next few years, Hank became the firm's most successful songwriter. In 1947 the skinny singer in his signature white cowboy hat had a magnificent year. MGM Records signed Hank to a recording contract, and he also became a regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio show on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisana. This country music program was second in prestige only to the Grand ale Opry on Nashville's WSM. Their appearances on the Hayride helped Hank and his band achieve their first hit, "Move It On Over."

In 1949 Audrey gave birth to Hank Jr. Adding to the successes of that year, Hank also was asked to join the Grand ale Opry. He made his debut on the Opry stage at Ryman Auditori'um on June 11, 1949. Giving Hank a taste of what was to come, the audience demanded an unprecedented six encores.

Hank soon became country music's top artist. Among his hits in 1949 and 1950 were "Lovesick Blues," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Moanin' the Blues," and "Why Don't You Love Me." In 1951 Hank kept his string of hits going with "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," and "I Can't Help It." One of the first signs that Hank was more than just another hill­billy singer was Tony Bennett's successful pop rendition of "Cold, Cold Heart."

Hank's unprecedented success rate continued in 1952 as he cemented his position as country music's number-one artist. Among those hits were "Honky Tonk Blues," "Jambalaya," and the prophetic "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." While he was scoring one smash hit after another, Hank's self-destructive tendencies were beginning to have an effect on his career. A heavy drinker since his teen years, Hank began to mix booze with pills. This combination began to give him a reputation as an undependable performer who often showed up drunk and drugged-if he showed up at all.

One of his proteges told the Rocky Mountain Musical Express, "Up to a point, liquor and pills just made him sing better and better. Then, all of the sudden, he'd just cave in. Sometimes he'd get real mean. You never knew which way he was going to go." Hank and Audrey began to fight on an almost daily basis, and Audrey divorced him in 1952. Williams's well-known song "Your Cheatin' Heart" was reportedly inspired by Audrey. His relationship with both close friends and his band began to sour as well. In a humiliating move, the Grand ale Opry suspended him from appearing on the show.

In 1952 Hank married 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones, who was no more successful than Audrey had been in protecting Hank Williams from himself. Unable to put up with his violent mood swings and unpredictability, the Drifting Cowboys parted ways with Hank that year. Williams died in his sleep in the backseat of his Cadillac on January 1, 1953, while traveling through West Virginia on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. Hank Williams was 29 years old.

After his death many of the people who had given up on Hank during the last years of his life began to idolize him. His funeral in Montgomery attracted 25,000 people, and he continued to have hits after his death as MGM Records began to repackage his music, often adding strings and backup singers to his rather spartan arrangements.

Many critics felt that Hank Williams had not been aware of the true magnitude of his talent. He lived liked a nomad, traveling through the South with his band and then blowing into Nashville and staying just long enough to make a new record before hitting the road again. Like other country musicians in the 1940's and 1950's, Hank Williams was under constant physical and emotional stress trying to make a living from his music.
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