Country music is a big goddamn deal. The genre is America's genre, replicated nowhere else and, in the fashion of all things American, completely frankensteined together from an unlikely breed of suspects. Around the 1940s, you had three flavors of what would become country to pick from: bluegrass
, which puts in your ears the sounds of inbred moonshiners who, through some bizarre happenstance of fate, fostered a love of English-Irish folk music and had just enough fiddles to be considered a threat; cowboy songs
, a Hollywood mutant that gave duded up actors the words of leathery-skinned range veterans; and honky tonk
, this exciting new white man's blues that added the exotic Hawaiian slide guitar
and a plinky upright piano to the black music becoming so popular in the south. Anyone who had a radio could strain to listen and hear all this, and I'm not saying I was there or in any way have my finger on the pulse of my country sixty years ago, but I'm betting a lot of people probably shed a thankful tear once Hank Williams strolled on the scene.
Hank. Hold on, folks, I gotta pause here and gather myself. Hank.
In the four short years of his recording career, encompassing some eighty-something studio sessions, Hank Williams popularized his mesh of strummy bluesy honky-tonk that carried the charisma of cowboy songs and became a fulcrum of country music, a sane point the genre could return to through the self-polluting, trashy Nashville-centric decades to come. Hank delivered us from Gene Autry and lent Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and a thousand other singer-songwriters a foundation upon which to build their poigniancy for the people. Blues' affair with country would've been short and uninteresting and we'd still be wallowing in songs about cowpokery were it not for Hank's craftmanship and songwriting talent. We'd be up shit creek without anyone to cut through the bullshit and tell us the river was dry. Hank is country music, basic, taintless, booze-fueled and all-American.
Hank's life is as much legend, it seems, as fact. He was born as Hiriam King Williams in Mount Olive, Alabama, on September 17, 1923, and was alone with his mother, Lillie, and sister, Irene, when his father made tracks after divorce. The three eventually settled in Georgiana and, at the age of eight, Lillie began to foster Hank's musical side. Hank's main tutelage was under a local blues musician, Rufus Payne, known by the name Tee Tot, who taught Hank the rudiments of singing and playing the blues. After a move to Montgomery, AL, in 1939, Hank formed his band, The Drifting Cowboys, managed by his mother, and, after two years of gaining popularity in area honky tonks, landed a regular radio spot on WSFA. There he was dubbed The Singing Kid for his repertoire of country classics, including those by mogul Roy Acuff, whose business partner Fred Rose eventually recorded Hank's first two Sterling Records singles.
The singles, Never Again and Honky Tonkin', were successful enough to earn Hank a contract with MGM Records and Rose's experience as a manager and producer. MGM's gamble on Hank paid off with his first single under their label, the upbeat blues number Move It On Over in 1947, which carried on up to the country Top Five. Hank's success was solid enough to earn him a steady spot on the Louisiana Hayride, not to mention the confidence to record his biggest hit, Lovesick Blues, which was hated almost universally by everyone in the studio, but earned him six encores -- that's six times folks stood and clapped and stamped their feet and hollered for more -- at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1949, Hank reformed the Drifting Cowboys with Bob McNett on guitar, Hillous Butrum laying down bass, Jerry Rivers slicin' the fiddle, and Dom Helms on steel guitar. The band was earning a grand for every performance and recording some of Hank's biggest hits in 1950: Long Gone Lonesome Blues, My Son Calls Another Man Daddy, Nobody's Lonesome For Me, and Hank's own gospelized pet project under the pseudonym Luke The Drifter. That's when country broke.
In 1951, the same year Hank recorded Cold Cold Heart, pop radio mainstay Tony Bennett produced his own chart topping version, prompting roughly five hojillion other artists to follow suit and "discover" Hank. The man's influence had begun to escape the relatively confined realm of country music, and any number of interpretations on his themes would follow in the years and decades to come. In the four short years since Hank's signing with MGM, he had already become their most valuable asset, a young songwriting juggernaut who had been embraced by the entire country. Hey, Good Lookin' hit the charts and it seemed to everyone like the man was unstoppable.
Hank's success in the music industry didn't carry into his personal life. Down to the grit, Hank was and always had been a drunken drug-obsessed bastard with a nice collection of guns and a lot of pent up rage, not to mention both physical and emotional pain. It was established routine for band members to drop him off in detox between gigs. In May of 1952, Audrey Mae Sheppard, his wife of eight years, filed for divorce and won the house, their children (including the not-fit-to-be-called-the-sweat-off-his-daddy's-balls Hank Williams Jr.), and half of his future royalties. In August, he failed to show for enough performances to warrant being kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry and asked not to return until he had sobered up. His band left him, he lost the support of his manager, and he was reduced to playing cut-rate shows with whatever musicians he could dig up. October saw Hank's marriage to a nineteen-year-old, Billie Jean Jones, in a ceremony of 15,000 paying witnesses, and, in the meantime, he was paying support for the child of another girlfriend, Bobbie Jett. Numerous back injuries had granted him an addiction to morphine and an even greater reluctance to perform. By the end of the year, Hank was hanging by a thread.
Every biographer, it seems, has a different story concerning the last night of Hank's life, but this seems to be the best average of details found. On New Year's Eve, 1953, Hank hired a driver to take him and his new Cadillac through incliment weather from Knoxville, TN, to Canton, OH. His doctor gave him a shot of vitamin B-12 and a shot of morphine to set him straight for the trip, and that was it. The driver was pulled over for speeding in West Virginia and Hank was discovered dead in the back seat at the age of 29, his death eerily echoing with the strains of his last single, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Three days later, he was buried in Montgomery, AL, drawing a crowd of mourners. MGM, anxious as any record company to exploit the death of a popular artist, took it upon themselves to release a series of unsuccessful demo tapes with overdubbed backing bands. In 1961, Hank was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
There is no denying Hank's impact on the worlds of both country and popular music. His style is revisited, it seems, every ten years or so, resulting in an explosion of genre-busting innovation. Hank paid dearly for his creativity, but his effects were far reaching: American music simply would not be the same without him, and every musician since likely owes him, if not their thanks, a shot of single malt and a solemn nod.