The Life Of Hank Williams
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The Life of Hank Williams
In this addition of artist biographies, we are sharing with you the Hank Williams story. Hank Williams was one of the legends of 20th century songwriting, as well as being a singer who topped the Billboard charts for Country and Western Best Sellers. Hank Williams had a unique style that earned him a place in the Music Hall of Fame, and many modern musicians of all genres count him among their greatest influences. Hank Williams lived a hard and short life, but managed to change the way songwriting was approached for generations to come.
Hank Williams was born September 17 in 1923 to Elonzo and Jessie Lillybelle Williams. He was their third child, but the only son to survive. He was named Hiram and his name was written incorrectly on his birth certificate as “Hiriam.” Williams was born with a chronic and painful condition called Spina Bifida, which affected his spinal column. At the time of his birth the family lived in Mount Olive.
Due to an accident that led to a brain aneurysm, Elonzo was in the hospital for almost 8 years, leaving Lillie as the primary caregiver in the home. Before the hospitalization at the VA in Alexandra, Louisiana; the Williams family moved often due to Elonzo’s job with a lumber company.
During the Depression, the family moved even more; travelling to various locations in Alabama while Lillie kept trying to make a living from opening boarding houses. Finally, in 1935, the family moved in with a cousin in Georgiana, Alabama. Lillie worked several jobs including one as a nurse.
After a series of misfortunes in which the family lost all of their possessions in a house fire, Lillie managed to open another boarding house that also had a garden. The garden provided enough for Hank and his Sister to travel around Georgiana to sell the bumper harvest. These trips out allowed for Hank Williams to meet US Representative Lister Hill. He talked to Hill about the problem that Lillie was having in collecting his father’s disability pension and Hill helped them to secure the payments. This allowed for their father to continue receiving care through the Great Depression, and for the family to live better through what was one of the worst times in the nation.
The Hank Williams Story: Love and Payne
There are a lot of people in Georgiana who claim to be the one who got Williams his first guitar, and there is also a story that his mother saved up for it by selling peanuts. Whatever the story behind the guitar, what is known is that Rufus Payne traded meals from Lillie for guitar lessons for Hank. Payne turned out to be a highly accomplished street musician and Williams learned more than cords, he learned a style of progression and accompaniment that would influence all of his later recordings. He even later recorded a version of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” which was one of the first songs Payne taught him. Payne also taught him the songs and stylings of Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican and Roy Acuff – who all became his greatest influences.
A Taste of Stardom
1937 brought a lot of changes to the family, Hank legally changed his name from Hiram to Hank, and he also entered a talent show. Staged at the Empire Theater, he won first prize singing “WPA Blues,” one of his own songs. He wrote the lyrics but used the music of one Puckett’s song “Dissatisfied.”
Hank Williams took to playing on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio station, a habit probably encouraged by Payne who was a street performer. The exposure at the talent show and on the sidewalk led to him being first asked to perform on the radio, and then getting a gig hosting his own show. His show ran 15 minutes; twice a week and he received a salary of $15 per week for the work.
Around this time he also formed a band and dropped out of school. The “Drifting Cowboys” were managed by his mother and they started to travel more.
The Million Dollar talent with the 10 Cent Brain
In 1941, America entered World War II and by 1942, the combined hardship of trying to find replacements for his band and life in general has Hank in the throes of full alcoholism. A fall from a bull in a rodeo is also thought to have contributed to the pain in his back he may have been medicating with alcohol as well. When he finally met Roy Acuff, one of his major influences, Acuff looked at him and how he lived and declared he had a “million dollar talent with a 10 cent brain.”
During the war, Hank Williams worked for a shipbuilding business in Mobile, and also continued to sing in bars. By 1944, he and his manager, Audrey Sheppard were married. By 1945, he had straightened out enough to be brought back on the air by WSFA, writing and performing new songs every week for the radio. His repertoire grew and he began to get more notice as a songwriter and performer. Standout compositions from these years include:
- Mother is Gone
- Won’t You Please Come Back
- My Darling Baby Girl
- Granddad’s Musket
- Let’s Turn Back the Years
- Honky Tonky
- A Tramp on the Stress
- You’ll Love Me Again
Ping Pong and the Acuff Rose Firm
Hank met Acuff again in 1946 over a game of ping pong that Audrey had arranged and Rose signed home for a six song contract. The songs that came out of this agreement landed Hank Williams squarely on the radar of MGM records. They included:
- Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul
- Never Again
- When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels
Artist Biographies: Williams and MGM Records
Now that Hank Williams had MGM’s attention focused on him, he released the country his, “Move It On Over.” He changed radio stations to KWKH, still hosting his own show and started to tour. “Lovesick Blues” became the next country hit and Williams finally found the accompaniment he needed with Bob McNett, Hillous Butrum, Jerry Rivers and Don Helms. In 1949, Audrey gave birth to Hank Williams Jr and Hank went on his first tour of Europe with the Grand Ole Opry. Hank also released –
- Wedding Bell Blues
- You’re Gonna Change
- My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It
- Cold, Cold Heart
The 50s saw a string of hit releases from Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys. They included:
- My Son Calls Another Man Daddy
- They'll Never Take Her Love from Me
- Why Should We Try Any More?
- Long Gone Lonesome Blues
- I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin
His 1951 release of “Dear John" made another huge mark in the country market, but it was the B side that became established as his “identity” song. “Cold, Cold Heart” is not only considered to be the epitome of Hank Williams at his best, but it has been recorded by many different artists, including Tony Bennett as well.
The Hank Williams Story: The Beginning of the End
The year 1951 also bought another fall to Hank Williams. Another back injury that occurred on a hunting trip now adds painkillers to the list of substances he was abusing. He was becoming more and more successful, and more and more unreliable. In the winter of 1952 he was to perform in Charleston, West Virginia. The sales were good, but a snowstorm threatened a cancellation. Hank Williams hired Charles Carr to drive him to the concert. At some point during the trip, Williams died while in the car. A later autopsy suggested that a recent blow to the head caused a brain aneurysm and that his substance abuse on the trip contributed to his death by causing heart failure, the official cause of death. Hank Williams was 29 years of age when he passed from stardom to peace.