Hiram Williams was born 89 years ago today (1923). We know him as Hank. Arguably he is one of the two or three most important individuals in American music history. Hank Williams is an inductee of both the Country Music (the first inductee) and Rock and Roll (its second year) halls of fame.
Entering local talent talent contests soon after moving to Montgomery in 1937, Hank had served a ten-year apprenticeship by the time he scored his first hit, “Move It on Over,” in 1947. He was twenty-three then, and twenty-five when the success of “Lovesick Blues” (a minstrel era song he did not write) earned him an invitation to join the preeminent radio barndance, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. His star rose rapidly. He wrote songs compulsively, and his producer/music publisher, Fred Rose, helped him isolate and refine those that held promise. The result was an unbroken string of hits that included “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “You Win Again.” He was a recording artist for six years, and, during that time, recorded just 66 songs under his own name (together with a few more as part of a husband-and-wife act, Hank & Audrey, and a more still under his moralistic alter ego, Luke the Drifter). Of the 66 songs recorded under his own name, an astonishing 37 were hits. More than once, he cut three songs that became standards in one afternoon.
The words and music of Hank Williams echo across the decades with a timelessness that transcends genre. He brought country music into the modern era, and his influence spilled over into the folk and rock arenas as well. Artists ranging from Gram Parsons and John Fogerty (who recorded an entire album of Williams’ songs after leaving Creedence Clearwater Revival) to the Georgia Satellites and Uncle Tupelo have adapted elements of Williams’ persona, especially the aura of emotional forthrightness and bruised idealism communicated in his songs. Some of Williams’ more upbeat country and blues-flavored numbers, on the other hand, anticipated the playful abandon of rockabilly.
Hank Williams’s legend has long overtaken the rather frail and painfully introverted man who spawned it. Almost singlehandedly, Williams set the agenda for contemporary country songcraft, but his appeal rests as much in the myth that even now surrounds his short life. His is the standard by which success is measured in country music on every level, even self-destruction.
Again from American Masters:
It all fell apart remarkably quickly. Hank Williams grew disillusioned with success, and the unending travel compounded his back problem. A spinal operation in December 1951 only worsened the condition. Career pressures and almost ceaseless pain led to recurrent bouts of alcoholism. He missed an increasing number of showdates, frustrating those who attempted to manage or help him. His wife, Audrey, ordered him out of their house in January 1952, and he was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry in August that year for failing to appear on Opry-sponsored showdates. Returning to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he’d been an up-and-coming star in 1948, he took a second wife, Billie Jean Jones, and hired a bogus doctor who compounded his already serious physical problems with potentially lethal drugs.
Hank Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac. He was found and declared dead on New Year’s Day 1953. He was 29.
Yes, that is June Carter in the video.