Hank Williams, Sr. (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) (legal name, Hiram Williams) was one of the most influential country musicians of all time, both as a singer and as a composer. In the words of country singer Faron Young, "He was the biggest change in the business. Before he came along, they were singing songs like 'Mama's Not Dead, She Just Quit Breathing'."
He was born in Alabama (this is sometimes listed as nearby Mount Olive in Butler County, Alabama) in 1923 to Elonzo Williams and Jessie Lillybelle. He learned to play guitar and sing from a street blues singer named Rufus Payne (a.k.a. "Tee Tot"). He was performing throughout Alabama by his early teens, and formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys after his family moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1937. He left high school without graduating. In 1941 Williams began working with WSFA, a local radio station.
In 1943, Williams met Audrey Sheppard, and the couple were married a year later. Audrey also became his manager as Williams' career was rising and he became a local celebrity. In 1946, Williams recorded two singles for Sterling Records, "Never Again" (1946) and "Honky Tonkin'" (1947), both of which were successful. Williams soon signed with MGM Records, and released "Move It On Over", a massive country hit. In August of 1948, Williams joined The Louisiana Hayride, broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana, propelling him into living rooms all over the southeast. After a few more moderate hits, Williams released his version of "Lovesick Blues" (Rex Griffin) in 1949, which became a huge country hit and crossed over to mainstream audiences. That year, Williams sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. That year, Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.), and Hank Williams brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass guitar), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys. 1949 also saw Williams release seven hit songs after "Lovesick Blues", including "Wedding Bells", "Mind Your Own Business", "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It".
In 1950, Williams began recording recitations as Luke the Drifter and released more hit songs, such as "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy", "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me", "Why Should We Try Anymore?", "Nobody's Lonesome for Me", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues" and "I Just Don't Like the Kind of Livin'". In 1951, "Dear John" became a hit but the B-side, "Cold, Cold Heart", has endured as one of his most famous songs, covered by Tony Bennett (who released a #1 pop hit version in 1951), Guy Mitchell, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Washington, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and Norah Jones. That same year, Williams released other hits, including the enduring classic "Crazy Heart".
In spite of his professional success, Williams' life was becoming unmanageable. His marriage, always turbulent, was rapidly disintegrating, and he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine and other painkillers. Much of this abuse came from attempts to ease his severe back pain, which was caused by a birth defect, spina bifida occulta. In 1952, Hank and Audrey separated and he moved in with his mother, even as he released numerous hit songs, such as "Half as Much", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "Settin' the Woods on Fire", "You Win Again" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Williams' drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. In October of 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Old Opry, and told not to return until he was sober. He rejoined the Louisiana Hayride. On October 18, 1952, he married Billie Jean Jones Eshliman. A ceremony was held at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium and 14,000 people bought tickets to attend.
His second marriage did not reform him. He missed numerous concerts or was too drunk to play. In addition, he did not stay faithful to his second wife, fathering another child, daughter Jett, by an acquaintance named Bobbie Jett. The Drifting Cowboys left Williams. On January 1, 1953, Williams was due to play in Canton, Ohio, but he was unable to fly due to weather problems. He hired a chauffeur and, before leaving the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee was injected with B12 and morphine. He then left in a Cadillac, carrying a bottle of whiskey with him. When the seventeen year-old chauffeur pulled over at an all-night service station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, he discovered that Williams was unresponsive and becoming rigid. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that Hank Williams was dead. He had been married for the second time for less than 3 months.
Williams' final single was ominously titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Five days after his death, his illegitimate daughter, Jett Williams, was born. His widow, Billie Jean, married country singer Johnny Horton the next year.
Hank Williams is interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery, Alabama. His funeral was said to have been far larger than any ever held for any governor of Alabama and is still, as of 2005, the largest such event ever held in Montgomery. As of 2005, more than fifty years after Williams' death, members of his Drifting Cowboys continue to tour and bring his music to generations of fans, many of whom were born years after his passing.
Number one singles
- "Lovesick Blues"
- "Long Gone Lonesome Blues"
- "Why Don't You Love Me?"
- "Moanin' the Blues"
- "Cold, Cold Heart"
- "Hey, Good-Looking"
- "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)"
- "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"
- "Your Cheatin' Heart"
- "Take These Chains From My Heart"
- "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
- "Move It On Over"
- "I'm a Long Gone Daddy"
- "Wedding Bells"
- "Mind Your Own Business"
- "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)"
- "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It"
- "I Just Don't Like This Kind Of Livin'"
- "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me"
- "Howlin' At the Moon"
- "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)"
- "Crazy Heart"
- "Baby, We're Really In Love"
- "Honky Tonk Blues"
- "Half As Much"
- "Settin' the Woods On Fire"
- "I Won't Be Home No More"
- "Please Don't Let Me Love You"
- "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy"
- "Why Should We Try Anymore"
- "Nobody's Lonesome For Me"
- "Lonesome Whistle (I Heard That)"
- "You Win Again"
- "Dear John"
- "Never Again"
- "Weary Blues From Waitin'"
Cover versions of Hank Williams songs
Cover versions of Hank Williams songs include:
- "Just Waitin'" (by Williams' pseudonym Luke the Drifter) was covered by The Fall in 1992, re-titled "Just Waiting".
- "Lovesick Blues" was covered by Ryan Adams, as well as George Strait.
- The The did an entire album of Hank Williams covers called Hanky Panky.
- David Crowder Band covered Williams' "I Saw The Light" (with special guest Marty Stuart) on their 2005 release, "A Collision".
George Thorogood and the Destroyers sang their own rock version of "Move It On Over".
- James Brown covered "Your Cheatin' Heart" in 1969.
- Al Green covered "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in 1972.
- Huey Lewis & the News covered "Honky Tonk Blues" on the album "Sports"
Song titles which tribute Hank Williams include: "Hank Williams You Wrote My Life", "The Life of Hank Williams", "The Death of Hank Williams", "That Heaven Bound Train", "Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You", "Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers", "Tribute to Hank Williams", "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul", "Hank Williams Will Live Forever", "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?", Hank Jr.'s "Family Tradition", "The Ride", "Hank Williams Sings the Blues No More", "In Memory of Hank Williams", "Thanks Hank", "Hank's Home Town", "Good Old Boys Like Me" (Hank Williams and Tennessee Williams), "If You Don't Like Hank Williams", "Why Ain't I Half as Good as Old Hank (Since I'm Feeling All Dead Anyway)?", "The Last Letter" (Mississippi disc jockey Jimmy Swan's reading of a letter to Williams by M-G-M boss Frank Walker), "Midnight in Montgomery," and Charley Pride's album There's a Little Bit of Hank in Me. (Brackett 2000, p.219n22), "The Night Hank Williams Came To Town"
- Download sample of "Cold Cold Heart"
- "A good song is a good song, and if I'm lucky enough to write it, well....! I get more kick out of writing than I do singing. I reckon I've written a thousand songs and had over 300 published." (From a 1952 interview with Ralph J. Gleason, published in a Rolling Stone magazine article 6/28/1969)
- The Time-Life Country and Western Classics: Hank Williams, p.2. Quoted in Brackett, David (1995/2000). Interpreting Popular Music. ISBN 0520225414.
- Hank Williams website
- Hank Williams Appreciation Society International
- Hank Williams - American Master of Folk Music