|Country Music "Remembers" by Gary Hayes
|Video of Hank Williams' classic tune "Hey Good Lookin"
September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953...
singer-songwriter and musician who has become an ICON of country music and one of the most influential musicians and
songwriters of the 20th century. A leading pioneer of the HONKY TONK style, he had numerous hit records, and his charismatic
performances and succinct compositions increased his fame. His songbook is one of the backbones of country music, and several of
his songs are pop standards as well. He has been covered in a range of pop, gospel, blues and rock styles. His death at the age of
twenty-nine helped fuel his legend. His son (Randall) HANK WILLIAMS, Jr.
, nicknamed 'BOCEPHUS', his daughter Jett Williams, and his grandchildren (Shelton) Hank Williams III, Holly Williams, and Hilary
Williams are also
HANK WILLIAMS was born in 1923, in the small unincorporated town of Mount Olive, about eight miles southwest of Georgiana,
Alabama. He was named after Hiram I of Tyre, but his name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate. He was born with a
mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him life-long pain—a factor in his later
abuse of alcohol and drugs. His parents were Elonzo H. Williams, (The H. was given to him in the military as he did not have a middle
name,) known as "Lon," or "Lonnie", a train conductor for W.T. Smith lumber company and World War I veteran, and Jessie Lillybelle
Williams, known as "Lillie." He had an older half sister (from his father's first marriage) named Irene. He also had a still-born brother,
named Robin, and a half sister, Lyla Frances, from his father's last marriage who, as of this writing, still resides in Selma, Alabama.
During his early childhood, the Williams family moved frequently throughout southern Alabama as his father's job required. In 1930,
when Williams was seven years old, his father began suffering from face paralysis. At a Veterans Affairs clinic in Pensacola, Florida,
doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, so they sent Elonzo Williams to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria,
Louisiana. Lonnie remained hospitalized for eight years and was therefore mostly absent throughout Hank's childhood.
In 1931, Lillie Williams settled her family in Georgiana, Alabama, where she worked as the manager of a boarding house. She
managed to find several side jobs to support her children, despite the bleak economic climate of the Great Depression. She worked in
a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital. Hiram and Irene also helped out by selling peanuts, shining shoes,
delivering newspapers, and doing other simple jobs. With the help of U.S. Representative J. Lister Hill, the family began collecting
Lon's military disability pension. Despite Lon's medical condition, the Williams family managed fairly well financially throughout the
In 1933, Hank Williams moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his uncle and aunt, Walter and Alice McNell. Meanwhile, his cousin
Opal McNell moved in with the Williams family in Georgiana to attend the high school there. In Fountain, ten-year-old Williams became
close friends with his cousin J.C. McNell, who was six years older. There he learned some of the traits and habits that would dominate
the rest of his life. His Aunt Alice taught him to play the guitar, and his cousin J.C. taught him to drink whiskey.
In the fall of 1934, the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, a larger town about fifteen miles to the north of Georgiana. Where
Lillie then opened a boarding house next to the Butler County courthouse. In 1937, Williams got into a rough fight with his physical-
education coach. Furious with the coach, his mother demanded that the school board fire him. When the school board refused to take
action, she decided to move the family to Montgomery.
In July, 1937, the Williams and McNell families opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery, a city much
larger than any they had ever lived in. It was at this time that Hiram decided to informally change his name to Hank, a name which he
said was better suited to his desired career in country music.
After school and on weekends, Hank sang and played his Silvertone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. He
quickly caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to come inside and perform on air. So many listeners
contacted the radio station asking for more of the "Singing Kid" that the producers hired him to host his own fifteen-minute show, twice
a week for a weekly salary of fifteen dollars.
In August 1938, Lon Williams was temporarily released from the hospital, and he showed up unannounced at the family's home in
Montgomery. Lillie was unwilling to let him reclaim his position at the head of the household, so he stayed only long enough to
celebrate Hank's birthday in September before he returned to the medical center in Louisiana. It was the first time Hank had seen his
father in over eight years, and even after the reunion, he felt as though he had grown up without a father.
Hank's successful radio show fueled his entrance to a music career. His generous salary was enough for him to start his own band,
which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys. The original members of the band were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and
comic Smith "Hezzy" Adair. Arthor Whiting was also a guitarist for The Drifting Cowboys. The Drifting Cowboys traveled throughout
central and southern Alabama, performing in clubs and at private parties. Hank dropped out of school in October, 1939, so that the
Drifting Cowboys could work full time.
Lillie Williams stepped up to be the Drifting Cowboys' manager. She began booking show dates, negotiating prices, and driving them
to some of their shows. Now free to travel without Hank's school schedule taking precedence, the band was able to tour as far away as
western Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle. Meanwhile, Hank returned to Montgomery every weekday to host his radio show.
The American entrance into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Hank Williams. All his band members were
drafted to serve in the military, and many of their replacements refused to continue playing in the band because of Hank's worsening
alcoholism. His idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying "You've got a million-dollar voice,
son, but a ten-cent brain." Despite Acuff's advice, Williams continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated, so in August, 1942,
WSFA fired him due to "habitual drunkenness."
Williams had eleven number-one hits in his short career — "Lovesick Blues", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love
Me?", "Moanin' the Blues", "Cold, Cold Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive",
"Kaw-Liga", "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Take These Chains From My Heart" — as well as many other top 10 hits.
In 1943, Williams met Audrey Shepard, and the couple was married a year later. Audrey also became his manager as Williams's
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 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 Rex Griffin's "Lovesick
Blues" 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. In addition, Hank brought together Bob McNett (guitar),
Hillous Butrum (bass), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys;
also that year, Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.). 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".
Luke the Drifter...
In 1950, Williams began recording as Luke the Drifter, an appellation given to Williams for use in identifying his more moralistic and
religious-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than his usual crooning. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox
operators would become hesitant to accept these non-traditional Williams recordings, thereby hurting the marketability of Williams's
name, the name Luke the Drifter was employed to cloak the identity of the artist — though the source of the recordings was quite
evident. Around this time, Williams 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 This 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, aided by the #1 pop version by Tony Bennett in 1951 being the first of many recordings of
Williams's songs in a non-country genre. ("Cold, Cold Heart" has subsequently been covered by Guy Mitchell, Casino Steel, Teresa
Brewer, Dinah Washington, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and Norah Jones, among others). That
same year, Williams released other hits, including the enduring classic "Crazy Heart".
Despite Hank's numerous country hits, the legend of Hank Williams seems to rest in the duality of his writings. On one hand, Hank
would sing about having a rowdy time ("Honky Tonkin'") or drifting aimlessly ("Lost Highway"), but would then sing religious songs of
remorse, most particularly, the title track to the album "I Saw The Light."
Hank Williams's marriage, always turbulent, was rapidly disintegrating, and he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine
and other painkillers prescribed for him in an effort to ease his severe back pain caused by congenital spina bifida. Had Hank been
born in a later era, the underlying cause of some of his pain may have been surgically treatable. Anesthesiologists still consider
Morphine Sulfate to be the "gold standard" for the management of spina bifida related pain and intractable pain caused by other
serious spine disorders. Intractable pain owing to such conditions is considered a co-morbid disease process with distinct
physiological, neurochemical and hormonal effects requiring treatment.
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's drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. A relationship
with Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett, who would be born just after his death.
In October 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Told not to return until he was sober, he instead rejoined the Louisiana
Hayride. On October 18, 1952, he married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar. A ceremony was held at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium
and 14,000 people bought tickets to attend. Soon after, the Drifting Cowboys decided to part ways with Williams. Their departure was
due to Hank drinking more than a show would pay.
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, injected himself with B12 and morphine. He then left in a
Cadillac, though contrary to popular belief, he did not have a bottle of whiskey with him. He was trying to get his career back on track by
proving to promoters that he could be sober and reliable. The only items found in the backseat of Hank's car were a few cans of beer
and the hand-written lyrics to an unrecorded song.
When the seventeen year-old chauffeur Charles Carr 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
was twenty-nine. Controversy has since surrounded Williams's death with some claiming Williams was dead before leaving Knoxville.
Williams's final single was ominously titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Five days after his death, his illegitimate daughter by
Bobbie Jett (Jett Williams) was born. His widow, Billie Jean Jones, married country singer Johnny Horton in September of that year