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By all accounts, the story of Hank Williams Sr. is the story of a country archetype. But Hank Williams is not just a guy who fit the bill and then made it big—he was arguably the first guy in country music who fit the bill and made it big. He defines what "the bill" looks like. Sort of like myths or folk tales, nobody really knows the origins of archetypes (they seem to develop over time in a nebulous sort of way)—but when it comes to the hard-drinkin', down-and-out country music type, Hank Williams is an early artifact, if not the original.
What was such a big deal about Hank's 29 years on the planet? From the start of his stardom as a teenager, Williams was self-absorbed and charming, addictive and prolific, and a bit irresponsible when it came to women. He was magnetic on stage, but impossible to deal with in real life. He spent more money than he made and burned more bridges the more famous he got. But he had something no one could put a finger on: "When he walked onstage and started bending his knees, kind of humped over in the shoulders, and started singing those old songs he had written, the audience just came unglued," says one friend, quoted in USA Today. Another described him this way: "He was the most cocky, most confident man I have ever met in my life. He had a way of looking at you that said, do you know who I am? I am the greatest singer in the world." Hank had that special combination of tortured soul and wild talents—in other words, he was totally miserable and totally brilliant.
Williams was born Hiram King Williams in 1923 in a sharecropper's shack in rural Alabama. His father, shell-shocked and disturbed after fighting in World War I, went into the hospital when Williams was only seven, leaving his mother, Lillie, to raise him and his sister alone. The family moved to Greenville, Alabama, and along the way Hank lived with relatives in a railroad camp for a while. Hank's mom, an organ player in the church, bought Hank a guitar for $3.50 when he was eight years old, and he started writing songs. By age 11, the little Williams could be found hanging out on the Greenville streets with African-American blues singer Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne. As the legend has it, they sang on street corners and Tee Tot taught him to sing the blues.
In 1937, the Williams family moved to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, where his mother opened a boarding house. Hank, still selling peanuts and shining shoes on the street to supplement the income, started to get attention by winning an amateur talent show. He got a spot on a local radio station and quickly became known locally as the Singing Kid (sort of like Justin Bieber, but without Usher or YouTube). He formed his first band, the Driftin' Cowboys, only to lose every single member to the massive draft for World War II. Williams could not be drafted because of chronic back problems, but worked in war-related jobs in the meantime.
The Singing Kid eventually found himself some new Driftin' Cowboys. He was a great frontman, full of magnetic stage presence and memorable original songs. The group soon started touring on the Alabama roadhouse circuit.
Roadhouses were like today's truck stops, except there was also live music, a full bar, and slack local enforcement of DUI tickets. It was probably in his early days traveling and singing that Williams started drinking. He also met his first wife, Audrey Mae Sheppard, a farm girl from rural Alabama, at a medicine show (a traveling infomercial promoting miracle cures). They married in 1944 and Audrey, who had musical ambitions of her own, became his manager.
By 1946, Hank was a celebrity in Alabama and searching for a big national break (harder to pull off in the days before American Idol, apparently). He and Audrey traveled to Nashville, where, in those days, all country recordings were set down in a single studio. They met producer Fred Rose, and a first record on his small label led to a big record deal with MGM in 1948. Suddenly his career was big time: Hank scored a spot on a weekly radio show in Louisiana, and in 1949 he appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, the mothership of country music.
But Williams had always been a tortured soul, and fame did his personal life more harm than good. He developed a heavy drinking habit, partially to self-medicate for increasing back pain. His marriage deteriorated into a series of threatened break-ups and dramatic reunions. Both he and Audrey ran around with other people. During one of their reunions in 1949 the couple ended up with Hank Williams Jr. (oops!), but by 1951, they divorced for good. Williams' hard-drinkin' ways were getting worse and worse, and he also began taking painkillers and morphine.
He was still rolling out hit songs: in 1951, his top ten hits included "Hey, Good Lookin'" (click the link for a rare video) and "Cold Cold Heart," on top of a slew of earlier hits like "Why Don't You Love Me" and "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy." Williams' songs had a sparse, clear lyrical style, and his music brilliantly blended honky-tonk, bluegrass and the blues he had learned on the street.
People loved him. Why? Don Helms, steel guitarist for the last version of the Driftin' Cowboys, says: "Hank was different things to different people. A lot of people liked him because they liked his songs. Some of them liked his sincerity, and some of them liked him because he was skinny." One of his biographers also says this: "People who knew Hank say that he was reserved and hard to know on a personal level, but he seemed to have a unique ability to project into a song or a performance all that he couldn't say in person. I guess he's not alone in that, but he took it to a higher degree than most. He seemed to me like a thermos...scalding hot inside and cool outside." When people saw or heard Hank Williams, they felt like he was singing directly to them. They were taken in by the way that he was vulnerable onstage, but inaccessible off stage.
Sounds a lot like celebrities today, right? The most successful figures are often the most enigmatic. (Take Lady Gaga, for instance. She's clearly a different flavor than Hank, but one thing we know for sure is that she is difficult to figure out.)
Williams' growing celebrity would be the death of him. Instead of curing his depression, it added to it. One friend said it this way: "He wanted to get to this place in this world where he was somebody. He got up there, and it was empty. There was nothing there that he wanted." Another says that fame killed his soul: "He had lost his humanness. He had become a product. And he hated that." Hank was in and out of jail and the hospital, played with guns, and got in fights that included breaking his guitars.
In 1951, Williams fell on a hunting trip and re-injured his back, leading him to start taking painkillers almost constantly. As he earned more and more money, he also blew more and more of it on drinking and drugs. He was fired from the Grand Ole Opry in 1952 for missing his own shows too often, drunk or passed out somewhere. Even his own band mates were mad at him: he kept drinking away the money his band made and showing up drunk to their shows. According to this bio, The Driftin' Cowboys drifted away from Hank that fall, fed up and disappointed with the singer.
But Hank was still a 20-something with a longing for romance, so he added girl troubles to his already troubled personal life. An affair with Bobbie Jett early that year led to her becoming pregnant, and Williams signed an agreement to provide support for the kid in fall of 1952. Right around that time, he married 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar (after threatening her boyfriend with a gun to win her favor). Within months, Billie Jean would be a widow, caught up in a nasty series of controversies with Hank's first wife, Audrey Sheppard, over rights to the Williams royalties and legacy.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, on a trip in Alabama with girlfriend Bobbie Jett, Williams wrote "Your Cheatin' Heart." He was juggling relationships with at least three women—Audrey Sheppard (his son's mom), Bobbie Jett (pregnant with his daughter), and young wife Billie Jean. This is why we think that "Your Cheatin' Heart" might be a song that is more about guilt than anything else. Hank understood cheatin' hearts because he had one.
On September 23, 1952, Hank went into the Castle Studio in Nashville with some of the Driftin' Cowboys to lay down a few tracks. Don Helms, the steel guitarist, heard "Your Cheatin' Heart" for the first time. As Helms tells the story, Hank played through a few lines, and then the group ran through the song together once. That single take would sell millions of copies and become the basis for countless covers and imitations in the decades to follow, as described in this article from CMT. The recording session was the last time Hank Williams recorded in his life.
We all know now from reading the labels that a person should not mix alcohol and painkillers (especially if the painkiller in question is morphine). By this time, Williams was living with a lethal combination of heart problems and alcohol and drug addiction. He either had a desire to self-destruct, or he hadn't read the warnings on the bottle, so to speak. It didn't help that his doctor was something of a conman who was pretty loose with issuing prescriptions, and Hank was constantly on some drug or another. As his friends and family describe it, the already thin man was literally wasting away.
Nobody knows exactly what happened on New Year's Eve, 1952. Williams was in a hotel in Tennessee, leaving in a car to drive to Canton, Ohio, for a New Year's Day show the next day. He had plans to fly but flights were canceled due to bad weather, so he hired a teenage chauffeur. His shady doc, Toby Marshall, gave him a couple of shots of vitamin B-12 and morphine before the ride, and reportedly Williams got in the back of the car with a bottle of whiskey in tow. Somewhere between Tennessee and Ohio, his heart stopped. His young chauffeur, too nervous to stop the car, just sped up instead, and he got pulled over for speeding in West Virginia. After the cops inquired about why the man in the back of the Cadillac appeared to be dead, Williams was rushed to a hospital in Oak Hill, West Virginia, and declared dead at 7 in the morning on New Year's Day. The creepy part of the story is that some believe that he was dead for almost the entire car ride, a corpse being driven through the hills of the south. There is still disagreement about whether he died in 1952, or 1953, and whether it was in Tennessee, or in West Virginia.
Marked by such a tragic and ambiguous ending, Hank's life became the object of other people's fantasies and projections. The drama of his young death was a part of how he became a legend. Hank's funeral, held in Montgomery, AL, drew upwards of 20,000 people and is still one of the largest events ever to take place in the state's small capital, according to this website about Alabama. Adding to his mystique, the last single Williams released before he died was called "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". The song is all about how the singer struggles with life and knows his days are numbered. (This uncanny situation reminds us of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last words. MLK also seemed to know that he was close to death, and was shot the day after he made this speech in 1968.) As word spread of Hank's tragic death, the weirdly timely song shot up in the charts.
"Your Cheatin' Heart" was released later that year and topped the charts for six straight weeks. Everybody covered it: pop stars of the time like Joni James, and legends including Patsy Cline, Louis Armstrong and Elvis. CMT recently voted it the #1 Done-Me-Wrong song of all time, and Hank Williams Jr. (son of the cheated-on mom) still
In a documentary about his life, a friend of Hank Williams' reminds us: "Legends don't look like legends when they're being made. They're just people." Williams was just a person—and a person ridden with faults and personal pitfalls. In many ways, he was a kid who never grew up, and never learned to handle relationships, money, or fame. It seems ironic that the guy who did so many people wrong in his own short life wrote the classic ballad about being done wrong. Is it poetic justice, or historic injustice? Either way, the recording of this upbeat but bitter little ditty was a defining moment in country music history.