He couldn’t read. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t stop screwing up. Yet Hank Williams is a giant of popular music without whom rock’n’roll might never have happened.
“I thought about Hank when I walked out on that Opry stage for the first time. all I could think of was, This is the same stage that Hank Williams was on and now I’m here.”
– Elvis Presley
IN JAILHOUSE ROCK, VINCE EVERETT, PLAYED BY Elvis Presley, has a photograph on his cell wall. Unsurprisingly, it’s of Hank Williams. Both singers were influenced by black music early in life, both won talent shows and learnt their stagecraft on touring country shows. Each took a minority music and reshaped it for worldwide consumption. And, to many, Hank Williams’ contribution was the greater of the two. For Hank had no precedent.
From Mount Olive, West Alabama, Hank’s father Lon Williams was a First World War veteran who’d suffered brain damage in battle. Hank, born Hiram Williams on September 17, 1923, was a frail but spirited kid, raised by his mother, Lilly Stone, who played organ at the local baptist church. Hank stood at her side during services and sang hymns. His love of gospel music never left him, but Hank was musically illiterate. “I have never read a note or written one,” he told The Montgomery Advertiser. “I can’t, I don’t know one note from another.” Nor was he a whiz at reading or writing English. Even so, when it came to songwriting, the man known as Bones was a genius, fashioning tunes that stick in the mind, simple lyrics that grab the imagination, recalling lost love, back-porch dalliances and Sunday morning feelings, or merely providing anthems for hobo heroes and honky-tonk hotsteppers.
Hank’s greatest musical mentor was Rufus Payne – better know as Tee-Tot – a hunchback black street musician whom he met as a boy in Georgiana, Alabama. “All the musical training I ever had was from him,” acknowledged Hank. “I learned to play the git-tar from an old coloured man. He played in a coloured street band. I was shinin’ shoes, sellin’ newspapers and following this ole nigrah around to get him to teach me to play the guitar. I’d give him 15 cents or whatever I could get hold of for the lesson.” Such lessons went well. When he was 12 years old, Hank made his debut on a Montgomery amateur night show performing an original composition, ‘WPA Blues’. And pocketed the star prize of 15 dollars.
Black influence on country music was hardly anything new even then. Jimmie Rodgers, the genre’s first superstar, learnt much of his craft at an early age while carrying water to black workmen on the Mississippi section of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. His wife Carrie Rodgers claimed: “During the noon dinner-rests they taught him to plunk melody from banjo and guitar. They taught him songs: moaning chants and crooning lullabies.” Such influences would bloom in Rodgers’ series of legendary blue yodels, one of which found him employing Louis Armstrong in back-up capacity.
By the age of 11 Hank had developed a taste for booze, readily available when he was sent to live with his cousins, the McNeils, in a Monroe County logging town where hillbilly music, beer and boot-leg hooch enlivened Saturday night parties. At 14, Hank Williams, an avid Grand Ole Opry listener, linked up with harmonica player Hezzy Adair, working as Hank & Hezzy. Other musicians were added and dropped. “Then he formed his own group and called them The Drifting Cowboys,” explained Hank’s first wife Audrey. “He had an early morning radio show on WSFA in Montgomery and could advertise on the show where he and The Drifting Cowboys would be performing. Most of the time, it would be schoolhouses or small honky-tonks.” By the late ’30s Hank was often legless. At one Drifting Cowboys gig in Alabama, he blew the show by losing his pick and playing guitar with his knuckles, prefacing each song with would-be humorous remarks that incensed the crowd outfront, entertainment that was counter-pointed when Hezzy Adair threw up on-stage. Fights became more frequent, Hank’s son Hank Williams Jr recalling: “Those clubs along the Alabama-Tennessee border were mean. Once Daddy had to club a guy with the stainless steel fret-bar from a steel guitar, which Daddy had observed worked very well as an argument settler. And it would have worked well if the other fellow had followed the rules instead of raising up and taking a huge bite out of Hank Williams’ eyebrow, hair and all.”
– Hank Williams
DON HELMS OF THE DRIFTING COWBOYS TELLS HOW, in 1941, Hank, then knocking on 18, took the band into a pawn-brokers and bought each member a blackjack, saying, “You’ll need these.” He’d apparently – and expensively – smashed a number of guitars over irate customers’ heads. The steel fret-bar – or “bullet” – was more economical, his main source of defence on the ‘blood bucket’ circuit, though he had a secret weapon in Lilly, who usually collected the door-money and handled gate-crashers in a manner satisfactory to Hank: “There ain’t nobody I’d rather have alongside me in a fight than my mama with a broken bottle in her hand.”
If, at this point, anyone had nominated Hank Williams as country music’s way ahead, they’d have been laughed out of the great South-west. His vocal style, eventually so distinctive, had hardly developed. He’d published nothing, being merely the beer-swilling leader of a doomed band. Temporary disillusionment allied to the advent of World War II heralded a change of occupation. Suffering from a back-injury incurred during a brief, ill-advised attempt at a rodeo career, Hank was not eligible for army service. Instead he headed into war work, spending a year and a half, on and off, labouring and welding with the Alabama Drydock And Shipbuilding Company in Mobile. His period on defence work gave Hank an opportunity to write. Though he had little education, somehow his simple words formed a kind of unbeatable folk poetry. Willie Nelson once opined: “Countless poets, authors and composers have reported with a feeling of awe that when their best work came it seemed as if some force beyond their control was controlling what they wrote. I don’t know if Shakespeare said as much, but I’m sure he felt it. Closer to home, one of my favourite writers, Hank Williams, used to say, ‘I pick up the pen and God moves it.’”
Armed with a batch of songs and a will to succeed, Hank returned to Montgomery in mid-1944 and re-formed The Drifting Cowboys. That same year, after checking with a doctor that he hadn’t picked up a venereal disease somewhere along the way, he married Audrey Mae Sheppard.
Audrey was even more ambitious than Hank. She urged him to head for Nashville and the Opry, where, like a zillion other hillbilly wannabes, he was initially turned away, presumably because he lacked a style of his own. Claimed Hank: “I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff but then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singin’ like myself.” A return trip in September 1946 produced the apocryphal tale of the first meeting between the singer and Roy Acuff’s partner and co-publisher, Fred Rose. Badgered by Audrey, Rose reluctantly agreed to hear Hank perform some of his material. Suitably impressed, he offered to buy the songs for 10 dollars apiece. A publishing contract was offered but no recording deal. Still, Hank was happy. Roy Acuff was his favourite performer, and to be signed to a company associated with him was one hell of an achievement. Such admiration was hardly reciprocated. At one meeting, Acuff informed a half-stoned Williams, “You got a million-dollar voice and a 10-cent brain.”
Even so, things were moving. Molly O’Day, rated by some as the greatest female country singer ever, recorded a couple of Hank’s songs. And Sterling Records of New York set up his debut recording session, albeit one that produced four maudlin songs, pure hicktown gospel that sold surprisingly well. A second session for Sterling emerged as a minor revelation, one track, ‘Honky-Tonkin’, proving to be ahead of its time – it was rockin’, electric and a blueprint to be followed later by various sons of Sun.
– Bruce Springsteen
THE ADVENT OF WORLD WAR II AND THE intermingling of people from different backgrounds in the armed forces took country music to the big city. Though Jimmie Rodgers had notched up a number of best-selling records during the late ’20s and early ’30s, and Roy Acuff had established himself as a star in the immediate pre-war years – it’s alleged that Japanese troops yelled, “To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff”, as they banzai-charged – the trade magazines had virtually ignored this people’s music. Billboardeventually established a ‘Western And Race’ column in January 1942, hastily changing the appellation to ‘American Folk Records’ a month later. A couple of years on, the first hillbilly record chart was installed. A Mademoiselle magazine article penned in the ’40s averred: “The decentralisation of backwoods ballads was helped along by the war. Industrial workers from the South carried their ditties cross-country into the aircraft plants and shipyards of the Pacific Coast. Servicemen from the hillbilly districts toted guitars and laments of – and for – home from camp to camp. When they weren’t sounding off on their own, they had the radio in the USO turned up volume-high for Elton Britt’s ‘There’s A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere’, the unofficial hillbilly theme of the armed forces.”
The mid-’40s also saw Nashville growing as a music centre in the wake of Decca’s decision to record Red Foley there, following which a modern recording facility, Castle Studio, was installed in the Tulane Hotel. The establishment of the Acuff-Rose publishing empire in 1942 completed the foundation on which Music Row would be built, All that was needed now was a beacon of exciting new talent to attract fresh energy and ideas. ‘Move It On Over’ lit that beacon.
Encouraged by the admittedly moderate sales of his Sterling releases, Hank had signed for MGM, a young but wealthy label originally launched by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1946 as an outlet for film soundtrack material. Hank’s first MGM single, ‘Move It On Over’, was, in its way, as important as Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ eight years later. Based around a tune that seemed to have been part of R&B since blues-birth, it was basically black in concept, only Hank’s driving yet down-homey vocal betraying its country origin. A downright commercial slice of cross-culture that bridged not only musical areas but also generation gaps, ‘Move It On Over’ was made for the jukebox age. In September 1947 the song headed into the Top 5 of Most Played Jukebox Hillbilly Records chart, which led to Hank being signed as a regular on Shreveport’s prestigious Louisiana Hayride radio show, beamed to a large audience every Saturday night. At the same Castle Studio session that produced ‘Move It On Over’, Hank also recorded ‘I Saw The Light’. A gospel hand-clapper that would never be a hit of any kind until the ’70s, when Roy Acuff would record it with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it nevertheless would prove to be one of the most performed songs in country music history, the show-closer to top all show-closers, though, like ‘Move It On Over’, closer inspection would prove that it had enjoyed a previous incarnation, being near-identical to gospel writer Albert E. Brumley’s ‘He Set Me Free’, first published in 1939.
‘Lovesick Blues’ wasn’t a Williams original or even a true blues. It was basically a vaudeville ditty, though it was blues singer Ann Chandler who began featuring it in 1922, the same year that the song was recorded by Elsie Clark. But it was first popularised in the late ’20s by Emmett Miller, a white man who sang in blackface. Miller was the whole enchilada. He sang and yodelled pop, jazz, blues and country, and his way of doing things eventually influenced musicians ranging from Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills through to Merle Haggard, who recorded a whole album of Miller’s songs. Hank Williams Jr reckons: “Without doubt my father learned ‘Lovesick Blues’ from Emmett Miller. It was either by record or he heard him perform it in person at a minstrel show.” However, it’s more likely that Hank had heard country singer Rex Griffin’s 1939 version of the song, his arrangement approximating that of the Griffin record.
Whatever the song’s ancestry, it made a star out of Hank Williams. The record not only topped the country listings but stayed in pole position for 16 weeks. As it clung to the charts, it was joined by such Williams releases as ‘Never Again’, ‘Mansion On The Hill’ and ‘Wedding Bells’. Though the Grand Ole Opry radio show management, aware of the singer’s booze problem and resulting unreliability, had been fighting shy of employing Hank, they were forced by public demand to give him a guest spot. Such was his reception that, within a short space of time, he became an Opry fixture. Such a prestigious residency called for a new band, one formed from the best young musicians around. Lead guitarist Bob McNett had come to Nashville with Hank, who then re-called steelie Don Helms, who’d been playing at a skating rink, adding 21 -year-old bass-man Hillous Butrum and fiddler Jerry Rivers, a Nashville veteran at 19. The first time they played the Opry, Hank again stopped the show with ‘Lovesick Blues’. Awed both by the occasion and the reception, Rivers remembers “the roaring applause continued for at least five minutes after we returned to the dressing room”.
Hank notched eight major hits during 1949 including a version of ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’, a song which Tee-Tot had reputedly taught him back in his Georgiana days, and ‘Lost Highway’. The following year saw him logging a similar number of successes, including two Number 1s: ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’, on which Bruce Springsteen would base ‘The River’, and ‘Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?’, which related to Hank’s ongoing problems with the ambitious Audrey. His wife wished to further her own career, and insisted on singing on-stage with her husband and cutting duets at recording sessions – ill-advised projects considering that Audrey could hardly hold a tune. Pregnancy frustrated her further – her cowboy outfits didn’t fit and, towards the end, she felt unable to keep tabs on the ever-errant Hank.
The arrival of Hank Jr in May 1949 didn’t change her cool disposition. “Daddy was haunted by his genius,” recalls the son Hank called Bocephus, “and when the blues came around at midnight, he had no-one to grab ahold of. His life was marked by strong women, first Lilly, his mother, then Audrey, his wife, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that they pushed. Lord, how they pushed!”
Hank’s stepdaughter Lycrecia Williams claims that Hank had been on his best behaviour while in Shreveport, only tumbling off the wagon on two or three occasions. But success brought more problems than failure. Following an argument that ended with a then-pregnant Audrey puncturing the tyres on his car and Hank responding by smashing furniture and anything else he could lay his hands on around the house, he took to his bed having tranquillised himself with sleeping pills. From then on, his drinking sessions would only be matched by his pill-popping.
– Tony Bennett
COUNTRY HAD PROVIDED INTERnational hits for pop stars long before Bennett reluctantly covered ‘Cold Cold Heart’. Bing Crosby had massive success with The Sons Of The Pioneers’ ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ in 1940, Bob Wills’ ‘New San Antonio Rose’ in 1941 and Jimmie Davis’s ‘You Are My Sunshine’ that same year. There were plenty of others. But perhaps the record that broke the dam and caused the pop brigade to come scurrying towards Nashville was Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart’s ‘Tennessee Waltz’. Penned in 1948, it was recorded by Patti Page in 1950 and became one of the biggest hits of all time, topping the US pop charts for 13 straight weeks and selling an unprecedented six million copies. A&R man Mitch Miller, who’d quit Mercury just before Patti Page’s record was released, moved to Columbia and began checking out other country song possibilities. Hank’s ‘Cold Cold Heart’, a C&W chart topper, was suggested by Jerry Wexler, then a Billboard columnist. Penned in the wake of one of the many arguments between Hank and Audrey – one story has it that a hospitalised Audrey, suffering from a post-abortion infection, refused to kiss Hank on one of his visits to her bedside – ‘Cold Cold Heart’ was another of Hank’s appropriations, the melody basically stemming from T. Texas Tyler’s ‘You’ll Still Be In My Heart’ from 1945. But Hank’s heart-worn delivery turned it into a country monster. When he performed it on the Opry in late January, 1951, he tore the place apart.
Mitch Miller, looking for a song to follow up ‘Because Of You’, Tony Bennett’s initial chart-topper, grabbed ‘Cold Cold Heart’ with alacrity, had Percy Faith write a lush string arrangement, talked the unwilling singer into recording the song – Bennett thought it far too hokey – then sat back and waited for the sales figures to accrue. And they did, Bennett’s record topping the US charts for six weeks. According to Williams’ one-time fiddle-player Jerry Rivers, Hank just couldn’t hear Bennett’s cover often enough and played it over and over every time he found it on a jukebox.
Having had one success with a Hank Williams song, Miller looked for more. Sometime later he had Rosemary Clooney cut ‘Half As Much’, which Hank had previously covered, achieving another pop Number 1, while Frankie Laine was assigned ‘Hey Good Lookin’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, and eventually, after Hank’s death, he was teamed with Jo Stafford for a duet on ‘Tonight We’re Settin’ The Woods On Fire’. All of the cover versions were major hits and the money poured into the Williams household. During 1951, Audrey was said to have spent some $50,000. Among the items acquired in the spree was a $4,000 Cadillac convertible.
– Jerry Lee Lewis
PUBLISHER AND BOOKING AGENT JIM DENNY WAS THE man responsible for bringing Hank Williams to the Opry. In August 1952 he was also the man who fired him – Hank’s bouts of boozing and pill-popping had made him miss too many radio shots and concerts. Their first meeting was hardly a bonding experience, Hank having to be sobered-up beforehand. On another occasion Denny had his wayward charge flown back to Madison Hospital (where he’d been several times previously) for rest and recuperation following a particularly bad spell at the Baltimore Hippodrome. “Every time Hank went on-stage he was drunk,” recalled Whitey Ford, known as the Duke Of Pacudah, “and every time he opened with the same lines: ‘Here I am in Baltimore. I ain’t never been in Baltimore. If I come back, it’ll be twice I’ve been here.’ I told Hank not to open with that but each time he would. We did four shows a day for a week. He was so drunk on-stage that he’d sway back on his heels and then forward on his toes. The pit band moved out of the way while he was on.”
Denny was so horrified that he assigned two Pinkerton security operatives to watch Hank: one to stand outside Hank’s dressing room and halt any suppliers of drinks and drugs getting in, the other to stay inside the room, just in case Hank smuggled in the offending items himself. But the inside man failed miserably. Hank got him drunk.
1951 proved a good news-bad news year for Hank. He accrued another eight major hits of his own and turned on many pop performers in the process. He toured with Little Jimmy Dickens; he opened The Hank And Audrey Corral, Nashville’s first Western clothes store; and, back in Montgomery, July 15 was proclaimed Hank Williams Homecoming Day, culminating in over 9,000 fans turning up for a show at the city’s new Cow Coliseum, hosted by Hank and Audrey and featuring Chet Atkins, Hank Snow and The Carter Family.
Then there was the downside. Promoting a patent cure-all medicine, the Hadacol Caravan was a tour by rail, the artistes travelling in 19 luxury Pullman cars; admission free with two Hadacol packet tops per adult and one per child, it cost a million to mount over its 40-day run. And, no matter where the Caravan played. Hank still had to return to Nashville for his Saturday night Opry gigs. His health, never good, began to slide. The booze and pills didn’t help. Nor did Audrey. Don Helms, who claims he took Hank to the Madison Sanatorium many times throughout the years, says: “We’d come off a 1,000 mile trip and couldn’t take him home because Audrey would raise hell when he’d been drinking.” At the Sanatorium, Hank would sober up quickly, spend a day or two reading his ever-present supply of comics, smoke, chew candy bars and then begin fretting ’til they let him take to the road again.
A hunting accident had exacerbated his back pain and major surgery was scheduled. According to Hank, the surgeons discovered that the problems were worse than first thought – he had two ruptured discs. A less than successful operation was performed leaving Hank in no shape to resume touring. As always, Hank ignored all advice and discharged himself from hospital, first returning to Audrey for a family Christmas during which he threw a chair at her. Visitors reported that one of the doors to the Williams home was riddled with bullet holes after one of their battles. Worse still, over the New Year he had to remain home while Audrey fronted The Drifting Cowboys, his only contribution to the dates being a pre-recorded message explaining his inability to appear.
In January 1952, claiming that she was in fear of her life, Audrey requested that Hank move out of the family abode, then filed for divorce, stating “cohabitation was unsafe and improper”, which came through on May 29. Hank was in bad shape. Minnie Pearl had worked with him in late April and recalled, “When he saw me, he said, ‘Oh, Minnie!’, and started to cry. It was a dreadful occasion for me because I loved Hank.” In August he was arrested in Alexander City for being drunk and disorderly and the same month was sacked from the Opryand forced to return in disgrace to the Louisiana Hayride. Yet the hits kept coming, as ‘Honky Tonk Blues’, ‘Half As Much’, ‘Jambalaya’, ‘Settin’ The Woods On Fire’ and ‘You Win Again’ echoed from every well-placed Wurlitzer.
Though he constantly suffered from bouts of the DTs, Hank continued to tour, albeit spasmodically. He missed Audrey, but he would show her he didn’t need her. He did so by marrying 19-year-old divorcee Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar three times, once conventionally and then twice more next day, on-stage at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium before paying audiences at the matinee and evening shows. The gig netted $30,000 dollars. Photographs taken at the wedding on October 18, 1952 depict a healthy looking Hank, who’d actually gained weight. There was little indication that he had but three months left to live.
– T-Bone Burnette
A PLANNED HONEYMOON IN CUBA WAS POSTPONED because Hank was too drunk. Within a few days he was readmitted to the sanatorium. A filed report noted: “This 30-year-old [sic] man has been admitted for Rx of acute alcoholic intoxication. States he has been on the road for seven weeks playing various stage commitments and has been drinking steadily for the entire period. Complains of chest pains, especially over upper chest regions. States that deep breathing greatly exaggerates pain. Has had almost constant cold and cough for past several weeks. Has taken many kinds of antibiotics in huge quantities.”
There were other problems. After the split with Audrey, Hank had moved in with singer Ray Price. Lonesome as hell, he took up with Bobbie Jett, a Nashville secretary. Within weeks she was pregnant. The baby was due around the beginning of January 1953. Though Hank wouldn’t admit that he was the father, just two days before he married Billie Jean he signed an agreement that Bobbie would receive various monies. The document began, “In view of the fact that the paternity of said child is in doubt… the said Bobbie W. Jett does hereby release the said Hank Williams from any and all further claims arising out her condition or the birth of the said child.” Billie Jean was unhappy with the whole affair, unhappy, too, that Hank refused to shape up. “I ain’t got nothin’ but just my guitar and a wife,” he confided to a friend. “And I wish to hell I didn’t have nothin’ but a guitar.”
Now and then, he’d turn up to play shows, mainly at honky-tonk joints, which he hated. And when he did appear he was unpredictable. After one stumbling, drunken performance he had to escape his hotel via the tradesmen’s entrance and head at full speed for the county line. In Lafayette, he merely stalked on to the stage, yelled, “You paid to see ol’ Hank, didn’t ya?”, then snapped, “Well, you’ve seen him…” And then he promptly disappeared into the wings.
Fellow performers began describing Hank’s appearance as being like the living dead. At one point, he was found in the back of a car, hardly breathing. He was taking morphine, chloral hydrate, dextro-amphetamine sulphate – anything that dulled the pain in his back and the devil that lived in his head. Obtaining drugs was no problem; Doc Marshall gave him blank prescriptions and pointed him in the direction of the nearest pharmacy – a course of treatment one might expect from a man who, before buying his phony doctor’s diploma, had done time in San Quentin for armed robbery.
However, a report by highway patrolman Swann Kitts surfaced some years later and cast doubts on the official line. Printed in the Knoxville Journal, it alleged that Williams and Carr had caught a plane out of Knoxville on December 31, 1952 but had been forced to return to the airport due to bad weather. Hank, completely drunk, reportedly managed a few words as he was carried to a room in the town’s Andrew Johnson Hotel. A Dr Cardwell claims that he was called to the hotel, where he found Hank drunk but still capable of holding some form of conversation. He gave the singer two injections of morphine and B-12. A couple of hours later, Carr and some hotel porters clothed the inert Williams and carried him to his car. The original intention, it seems, was that Hank would spend the night at the Andrew Johnson. An hour later, at 11.45 pm, Carr was given a ticket for speeding by patrolman Kitts, who says: “Carr said he was driving Hank Williams. I noticed Williams and asked if he could be dead, as he was pale and blue-looking. But he said Williams had drunk six bottles of beer and a doctor had given him two injections to help him sleep. He asked me not to wake him up.”
Later, investigating Hank’s death, Kitts came to the conclusion that the singer must have died at the hotel and, for reasons unknown, his death was covered up until some hours later. Driver Carr denies many points in this story. According to his version, they did stay at the hotel after the plane failed to make the trip to Canton. He also agreed that a doctor attended Williams but did not inject the singer with morphine but merely gave him some vitamins, after which, receiving telephoned orders from somebody unknown, it was decided to push on by car.
It was the version of events that Nashville favoured at the time. Less messy, less likely to cause a decline in Hank’s record sales. After all, in the record business, there’s life after death. Hank may have only been 29, but there were those around who reckoned he might make it to 50 in terms of sales years.
The Beckley, West Virginia pathologist who examined Hank’s body came up with a dream autopsy report. Hank had died of haemorrhages in his heart and neck. There were traces of alcohol in the bloodstream but no evidence of narcotics. The death certificate recorded the cause of death as “acute right vetricular dilation”. Drugs? What drugs?
– Leonard Cohen (‘The Tower Of Song’)
AFTER THE POST-MORTEM, HANK’S BODY WAS shipped back to Montgomery for a funeral due to take place on Sunday, January 4, 1953. The municipal auditorium was packed. Outside, another 20,000 mourned. Inside, Ernest Tubb, June Carter, Ray Price, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens and other stars paid due homage. Jim Denny took a look around and mused to a friend that if Hank could raise the lid of his coffin, he’d take a look around and yell, “I told you dumb sons of bitches I could draw more dead than you could alive!” And, as usual, Hank had got his timing right, his funeral proving almost a promo gig for his most recent hit – ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’. It would prove to be his eighth Number 1.
As Audrey and Billie Jean each attempted to grab their piece of the action, MGM turned over its entire pressing plant to producing Hank Williams records. ‘Kaw-Liga’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ both headed the chart although they were separate sides of the same record. Before they dropped from the listings, ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ was on hand to ensure Hank’s domination of country music’s pole position. In his lifetime, Hank had only issued two albums. His meagre supply of releases was about to create a whole industry, one which would find him singing along to string arrangements, others in which later voices, his son’s and his grandson’s, would be dubbed alongside his to a Southern rock backing. There’d be a film, with music by Hank Jr and George Hamilton providing an amazingly inaccurate screen portrait of a Hank who performed songs he never actually got around to singing on-stage. And there’d also be a regular supply of tribute albums by George Jones, Ronnie Hawkins, Ray Price and countless others.
An early death ensured Hank Williams legendary status – and legends don’t die, they merely guarantee profits for decades to come. Maybe, if Hank had managed to straighten out his ways, he might have continued as a hit machine. Some country stars of the ’40s, like Eddy Arnold and, to a lesser extent Webb Pierce, continued their hit-making ways right through the ’60s, though most of their contemporaries faded under the onslaught of rock.
But, as a legend he’s more valuable: Nashville’s answer to Norma Jean and James Dean, a soundtrack for rebels past and those yet to come. When the city launched its Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, three people were honoured by plaques in that first year – Fred Rose, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, the last’s inscribed, “Hank Williams September 1923-January 1 1953. Performing artist, songwriter… Hank Williams will live on in the memories of millions of Americans. The simple, beautiful melodies and straightforward plaintive stories in his lyrics, of life as he knew it, will never die. His songs appealed not only to the country music field but brought him great acclaim in the pop music world as well.”
From a grave somewhere in Montgomery, came a laugh that swooped into a yodel.
© Fred Dellar, 1998