As a kid, Hank Williams listened to the yodeling star Jimmie Rodgers
, the Carter Family, and Roy Acuff, some of the biggest names in country music at the time. But by all accounts, his relationships with African-American blues singers—most importantly street musician Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne
—were equally significant in his musical development. The fact that Williams was a young white musician in the Jim Crow
south makes his influences even more interesting. As a teenager, Williams used play his guitar on the street or on the front porch with Tee Tot. The older singer taught him to play blues guitar and got Williams interested in blues rhythms and phrasing, which would become central to his specific style of country music.
Payne, whose exact date of birth is unknown, was probably born in 1884 on a plantation in Alabama. His parents had been slaves. He moved to New Orleans as a kid, and then back to Alabama to find work as an adult. When he became Williams' mentor, he was working odd jobs in Greenville, Alabama. In a 1951 interview, Hank said this about Payne: "All the music training I ever had was from him." In another interview, he said "I learned to play the guitar from an old colored man." According to this article
, sources also say that Tee Tot helped Hank overcome his extreme shyness to help him display his talents to the world. Tee Tot died nearly penniless in a charity hospital in 1939. There are no pictures of Tee Tot, and his specific site of burial is unknown.
Because of racism, often the influence of black musicians on white musicians has been overlooked in history. Trying to correct the mistake, Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne is featured along with Hank Williams in a mural that honors black and white country and blues stars and their connections with each other. In recent years, others have erected a 9-foot memorial
outside the gravesite where they think Tee Tot is buried.
Hank Williams is cited as an influence by a gazillion big names ranging from Johnny Cash to The Beatles. But probably his most interesting legacy is his own children and grandchildren, all music stars to various levels.
His first son, Hank Williams Jr., has enjoyed the greatest success of any of the descendants. Rising to fame with the help of his dad's name, Jr. has also carved out his own identity, and proved himself talented enough to rank at #20 in CMT's documentary on the 40 Greatest Men in Country Music (Hank Sr. was #2, beat out only by Johnny Cash). He started his career at the Grand Ole Opry at age 11 and recorded his first album at 14. His ability to adapt to the times and step out of his father's shadow eventually allowed Hank Jr. a permanent—and prominent—space in the country music landscape
. Hank Jr. has also been able to make light of his dad's crazy reputation. In 1981 he teamed up with Don Helms (the steel guitarist who recorded "Your Cheatin' Heart" with Hank Sr. in 1952) on "The Ballad of Hank Williams," a spoofy song where Hank Jr. asks Helms to tell him all about his daddy. Helms responds with lines like "He'd spend a thousand dollars on a hundred dollar show" and "Hank played nothing but sold-out halls/ And I was pumping gas in greasy overalls."
Hank Jr.'s son, known as Hank III, is a little less humorous about the whole affair. "It's taken a lot of telling it the way it is for people to catch on to: 'Well, guess what, he died and he'll never be back,'" he said in 2002. The young musician—a near-spitting image of his grandpa—surprised everyone by tending more towards punk and metal than old-timey country music. He has also been much less successful than his predecessors. Hank III has a dirty mouth and a lot of anger at the country music establishment, taking stabs at country stars, Nashville, and the Grand Ole Opry in his songs. But when he calms down enough to just sing, III can replicate his grandfather
By far the most interesting Hank Williams legacy, at least on a personal level, is Jett Williams
, the daughter born to Bobbie Jett just days after Hank died. Bobbie Jett gave up her daughter later in 1953, and little Jett was briefly adopted by Hank Williams' mother, Lillie. The adoption was completed in December of 1954, but Lillie passed away just two months later and the rest of the Williams family said they didn't want her. The girl ended up in the foster care system and then in an adoption agency. She remained with her adoptive family and took up guitar and singing at a young age, even though she had no idea she was Hank Williams' daughter. It wasn't until the 1980s that Jett set out to find out who her biological parents were, and eventually uncovered her story. In 1985 she went public with it, and in 1987 she was declared by an Alabama court to be the legal daughter of Hank Williams, Sr. It turned out that the Williams family—including Hank Jr.—had attempted to cover up the existence of another child in order to hog the royalties that continued to flow from Hank Sr.'s estate. In keeping with the Williams family traditions of drama and fame, Jett married her lawyer in 1987, and began a professional singing career in 1989. Hear Jett sing "I Am What I Am,"
to get a sense of how she's gone ahead with her strange legacy in tow.