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Hank Williams (September 17, 1923–January 1, 1953), born Hiram King Williams, was an American singer-songwriter and musician regarded as among the greatest country music stars of all time. He charted eleven number one songs between 1948 and 1953, though unable to read or write music to any significant degree. His hits included "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry".

Williams died at age 29; his death is widely believed to have resulted from a mixture of alcohol and drugs. His son Hank Williams, Jr., daughter Jett Williams, and grandchildren Hank Williams III, Holly Williams, and Hilary Williams are also professional singers.

His songs have been recorded by hundreds of other artists, many of whom have also had hits with the tunes, in a range of pop, gospel, blues and rock styles. Williams has been covered by performers including Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen , Beck Hansen, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong.

Early life

Williams was born inside a log cabin in Mount Olive, Alabama to Elonzo Huble "Lon" Williams and Jessie Lillybelle "Lillie" Skipper. He was named after Hiram I of Tyre (one of the three founders of the Masons, according to Masonic legend), but his name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate. As a child he was nicknamed "Harm" by his family. He was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain — a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. He was Elonzo's and Lillie's third and last child together, preceded by a brother who died shortly after birth, and sister Irene.

Williams' father was an employee for a lumber company railway line and was frequently transferred by his employer and the family lived in many Southern Alabama towns. In 1930, when Williams was seven years old, his father began suffering from face paralysis. At a Veterans Affairs clinic in Pensacola, Florida, doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, and Elonzo was sent to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana. Elonzo remained hospitalized for eight years, rendering him mostly absent throughout Hank's childhood.

In 1931, Lillie Williams settled her family in Georgiana, Alabama, where she worked as the manager of a boarding house. She managed to find several side jobs to support her children, despite the bleak economic climate of the Great Depression. She worked in a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital. Hiriam and Irene also helped out by selling peanuts, shining shoes, delivering newspapers, and doing other simple jobs. With the help of U.S. Representative J. Lister Hill, the family began collecting Elonzo's military disability pension. Despite their patriarch's medical condition, the Williams family managed fairly well financially throughout the Great Depression.

In 1933, Williams moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his uncle and aunt, Walter and Alice McNeil. Meanwhile, his cousin Opal McNeil moved in with the Williams family in Georgiana to attend the local high school. His aunt Alice taught him to play guitar, while his cousin, J.C. McNeil, taught him to drink whiskey.

In the fall of 1934, the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, where Lillie then opened a boarding house next to the Butler County courthouse. In 1937, Williams got into a fight with his physical education coach about exercises the coach wanted him to do. His mother subsequently demanded that the school board terminate the coach; when they refused, the family relocated to Montgomery, Alabama.

Early career

In July 1937, the Williams and McNeil families opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery. It was at this time that Hiram decided to informally change his name to Hank, a name which he said was better suited to his desired career in country music. After school and on weekends, Williams sang and played his Silvertone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. He quickly caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to come inside and perform on air. So many listeners contacted the radio station asking for more of the "Singing Kid" that the producers hired him to host his own fifteen-minute show, twice a week for a weekly salary of fifteen dollars. In August 1938, Lon Williams was temporarily released from the hospital, and he showed up unannounced at the family's home in Montgomery. Lillie was unwilling to let him reclaim his position at the head of the household, so he stayed only long enough to celebrate Hank's birthday in September before he returned to the medical center in Louisiana.

Williams' successful radio show fueled his entrance to a music career. His generous salary was enough for him to start his own band, which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys. The original members of the band were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and comic Smith "Hezzy" Adair. James E. (Jimmy) Porter was the youngest Drifting Cowboy, being only 13 when he started playing steel guitar for Hank. Arthor Whiting was also a guitarist for The Drifting Cowboys. The Drifting Cowboys traveled throughout central and southern Alabama, performing in clubs and at private parties. Hank dropped out of school in October, 1939, so that the Drifting Cowboys could work full time. James Ellis Garner later played fiddle for him.

Lillie Williams stepped up to be the Drifting Cowboys' manager. She began booking show dates, negotiating prices, and driving them to some of their shows. Now free to travel without Hank's school schedule taking precedence, the band was able to tour as far away as western Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle. Meanwhile, Hank returned to Montgomery every weekday to host his radio show.

The American entrance into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Williams. All his band members were drafted to serve in the military, and many of their replacements refused to continue playing in the band because of Hank's worsening alcoholism. His idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying "You've got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain." Despite Acuff's advice, Williams continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated, so in August 1942, WSFA fired him due to "habitual drunkenness."

Later career

Williams had 11 number one hits in his career—"Lovesick Blues", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me", "Moanin' the Blues", "Cold, Cold Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive", "Kaw-Liga", "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Take These Chains from My Heart" — as well as many other top ten hits.

1940s

In 1943, Williams met Audrey Sheppard, who became his manager as his career was rising, and he became a local celebrity. In 1946, Williams recorded two singles for Sterling Records—"Never Again" (1946) and "Honky Tonkin'" (1947)—both of which were successful. Williams soon signed with MGM Records, and released "Move It On Over", a massive country hit. In August 1948, Williams joined Louisiana Hayride, broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana, propelling him into living rooms all over the southeast. After a few more moderate hits, Williams released his version of Rex Griffin's "Lovesick Blues" in 1949, which became a huge country hit and crossed over to mainstream audiences. That year, Williams sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. In addition, Hank brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys; also that year, Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.). 1949 also saw Williams release seven hit songs after "Lovesick Blues", including "Wedding Bells", "Mind Your Own Business", "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It".

"Luke the Drifter"

In 1950, Williams began recording as Luke the Drifter, an appellation given to him for use in identifying his religion-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than singing. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox operators would become hesitant to accept these non-traditional Williams recordings, thereby hurting the marketability of Williams's name, the name Luke the Drifter was employed to cloak the identity of the artist. Around this time, Williams released more hit songs, such as "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy", "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me", "Why Should We Try Any More?", "Nobody's Lonesome for Me", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues" and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'". In 1951, "Dear John" became a hit but the B-side, "Cold, Cold Heart", has endured as one of his most famous songs, aided by the #1 pop version by Tony Bennett in 1951 being the first of many recordings of Williams's songs in a non-country genre. ("Cold, Cold Heart" has subsequently been covered by Guy Mitchell, Casino Steel, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Washington, Lucinda Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cowboy Junkies, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and Norah Jones, among others). That same year, Williams released other hits, including "Crazy Heart".

Personal life

On December 15, 1944, Williams married Sheppard. It was her second marriage and his first. Their son, Randall Hank Williams, who would achieve fame in his own right as Hank Williams, Jr., was born on May 26, 1949.

Williams' marriage, always turbulent, was rapidly disintegrating, and he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine and other painkillers prescribed for him in an effort to ease his severe back pain caused by his spina bifida. Williams and his wife were divorced on May 29, 1952.

In 1952, Williams moved in with his mother, even as he released numerous hit songs, such as "Half as Much", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "Settin' the Woods on Fire", "You Win Again" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Williams' drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. A relationship with Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett, who would be born just after his death.

On August 11, 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Told not to return until he was sober, he instead rejoined Louisiana Hayride. Soon after, the Drifting Cowboys decided to part ways with Williams. Their departure was due to Williams drinking more than a show would pay.

On October 18, 1952, Williams married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar (born 1933) in Minden, Louisiana.It was a second marriage for both (both having been divorced with children). The next day two public ceremonies were also held at the New Orleans Civic Auditorium where 14,000 seats were sold for each ceremony.It has been written that Williams wanted the two public ceremonies in an attempt to spite Audrey who wanted him back and threatened that he would never see his son again. After Williams' death, a judge ruled the wedding was not legal due to the fact that Billie Jean’s divorce did not become final until eleven days after she married Williams. Hank's first wife, Audrey, and his mother, Lillian, were the driving force behind having the marriage declared invalid and pursued the matter for years. Little mention was made that Williams also married Audrey before her divorce was final. He married her on the tenth day of a required 60 day reconciliation period On October 22, 1975 a federal judge in Atlanta finally ruled Billie Jean's marriage was valid and half of Williams' future royalties belonged to her.After Willams' death, Billie Jean married Johnny Horton, also an American country music singer, in 1953. She was again widowed in 1960 when Horton was killed in a car crash.

Death

On January 1, 1953, Williams was due to play at a New Years Day concert in Canton, Ohio, but he was unable to fly due to weather problems with snow and ice in Ohio. He hired a college student, Charles Carr, to drive him to the concerts he was to perform during the few final days of 1952 and early 1953. Upon leaving the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, Williams apparently had injected himself with some pain-killers which included a morphine/Vitamin B-12 combination. Also found in the Cadillac convertible were some empty beer cans and the handwritten lyrics to a song yet to be recorded. According to some, Williams was carried semi-conscious to his automobile by Carr and a hotel employee, who wondered about Williams' condition, and later believed he might have been dead at that point.

In a slightly different version, Carr suspected Williams was moribund at some earlier point, but realized the great singer was dead several miles before entering the town of Oak Hill, West Virginia where he, almost in a panic, pulled up to the gas station to seek help

Upon closer examination, it was discovered that Williams was dead. He was 29. The official cause of death was heart failure, but there is still some mystery about the circumstances. Controversy has since surrounded Williams' death, with some claiming that Williams was dead before leaving Knoxville. Other sources, speculating from the forensic evidence, claim that Williams died in his sleep while the Cadillac was being driven through Kentucky about an hour before his body was discovered in the back seat. Oak Hill is still widely known as the little town where Hank Williams "died." There is a monument dedicated to his memory across the street from the little gas station where Carr anxiously sought help for Williams. The people of Oak Hill were apparently concerned with Carr and his near-panicky condition, as they calmed him and welcomed him into their homes. The Cadillac where Hank died in is now preserved at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

Williams' final single released during his lifetime was coincidentally titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Five days after his death, his daughter by Bobbie Jett (Jett Williams) was born. His widow, Billie Jean Jones, married country singer Johnny Horton in September 1953. "Your Cheatin' Heart" was written and recorded in 1952 but released in 1953, after Williams' death. The song was number one on the country charts for six weeks. The story goes that Williams was prompted to write the song when thinking about his first wife, Audrey Williams, while driving around with his second, Billie Jean Williams; she is supposed to have written down the lyrics for him in the passenger seat. Williams collaborated with Nashville songwriter Fred Rose to produce the song's final draft before recording it during his last ever recording session, on September 23, 1952. The song provided the title of a 1965 biopic about Williams, which starred George Hamilton.

Legacy and influence

A life-size statue of Williams stands in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, where he began his music careerWilliams' son Hank Williams, Jr., daughter Jett Williams, grandson Hank Williams III, and granddaughters Hilary Williams and Holly Williams are also country musicians.

Williams ranked number two in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003, behind Johnny Cash. His son, Hank Jr., ranked number 20 on the same list.

Williams' remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery, Alabama. His funeral was said to have been far larger than any ever held for a citizen of Alabama and is still, as of 2005, the largest event ever held in Montgomery. As of 2007, more than 50 years after Williams's death, members of the Drifting Cowboys continue to tour.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him number 74 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.The website "Acclaimedmusic" collates recommendations of albums and recording artists. There is a year-by-year recommendation for top artists. For the period 1940–1949, Hank Williams is ranked as number 1 for his song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". Many rock and roll pioneers of the 1950s, such as Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Ricky Nelson, Jack Scott, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Williams songs early in their careers.

In February 2005, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling stating that Williams' heirs—son Hank Williams Jr. and daughter Jett Williams—have the sole rights to sell his recordings made for a Nashville, Tennessee radio station in 1951. The court rejected claims made by Polygram Records and Legacy Entertainment in releasing recordings Williams made for the Mother's Best Flour Show, a program that originally aired on WSM-AM. The recordings, which Legacy Entertainment acquired in 1997, include live versions of Williams's hits and his cover version of other songs. Polygram contended that Williams's contract with MGM Records, which Polygram now owns, gave them rights to release the radio recordings. Jett Williams stated on her website in August 2007 that the "Mother's Best" recordings would be released in 2008. A 3 CD selection of the tracks, restored by Joe Palmaccio, was released by Time-Life in October 2008 titled The Unreleased Recordings.

In 1981, Drifting Cowboys steel guitarist Don Helms teamed up with Hank Williams, Jr. to record "The Ballad of Hank Williams". The track is a spoof or novelty song about Hank Sr.'s early years in the music business and his spending excesses. It was sung to the tune of "The Battle of New Orleans", made famous by Johnny Horton. Hank, Jr. begins by saying "Don, tell us how it really was when you was working with Daddy." Helms then goes into a combination of spoken word and song with Williams to describe how Hank, Sr. would "spend a thousand dollars on a hundred dollar show" among other humorous peculiarities.

The chorus line "So he fired my ass and he fired Jerry Rivers and he fired everybody just as hard as he could go. He fired Old Cedric and he fired Sammy Pruett. And he fired some people that he didn't even know" is a comical reference to Hank Williams' overreaction to given circumstances.

In 1991, Country music artist Alan Jackson released "Midnight in Montgomery", a song with lyrics that portray meeting Hank Williams' spirit at Williams' grave site while on his way to a New Year's Eve show.

Country artist Marty Stuart also paid homage to Hank Williams with a tribute track entitled "Me And Hank And Jumping Jack Flash." The lyrics tell a story, similar to the "Midnight in Montgomery" theme but about an up-and-coming Country music singer getting advice from Hank Williams' spirit.

In 1983, country music artist David Allan Coe released "The Ride", a song that told a story of a young man with his guitar hitchhiking through Montgomery and being picked up by the ghost of Hank Williams in his Cadillac and driven to the edge of Nashville. "...You dont have to call me mister, mister, the whole world called me Hank".

In 1999, Williams was inducted in the Native American Music Hall of Fame.

Pulitzer Prize citation

On April 12, 2010, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Williams a posthumous special citation that paid tribute to his “craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”

"I've Done Everything Hank Did But Die" written and performed by the late Keith Whitley. Never officially released, it was presumably recorded sometime after Keith had surpassed the age of 29, Hank's age when he died. Whitley, who like his idol battled alcoholism, died of acute alcohol poisoning at the age of 33.

On the album Show Me Your Tears, Frank Black's song "Everything Is New" recounts the tragedy of both Williams' and Johnny Horton's deaths. The relevant lyrics are: "Hiram said to John have you met my wife? Someday she'll be yours when I lose my life. He lost it after playing the old Skyline. Seven years later, after that same gig, John took the wheel, but when he got to the bridge Billy Jean was alone for the second time." Billy Jean of course refers to Billie Jean Jones (Jones being her maiden name) who married both Hiram "Hank" Williams and, later, John "Johnny" Horton. Both men died in vehicles, and both played their last (separate) concerts at Austin, Texas's "the old Skyline" Club (as the song mentions).

Albums

Williams tribute albums have been released by a diverse range of artists, including Connie Stevens, Floyd Cramer, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, Moe Bandy, Ronnie Hawkins, Charlie Rich, Del Shannon, Sammy Kershaw, Trio Los Panchos and Hank Locklin. Some additional examples of albums recorded in Williams' honor include:

The tribute album Timeless was released in 2001, featuring cover versions of Hank Williams songs by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Hank Williams III and others.

Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis teamed up on the 1971 album Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis Sing Hank Williams, which featured covers of 12 of Williams's greatest hits.

British alternative band The The recorded a full album of Williams cover versions in 1994 entitled Hanky Panky. This was intended to be the first in a series of tribute albums by The The covering the work of influential songwriters and musicians, but no further albums were recorded or released.

Irish singer/songwriter Bap Kennedy covered 11 songs by Hank Williams on his 1999 album Hillbilly Shakespeare. His followup album Lonely Street, released in 2000, contains numerous references to Hank Williams, and on the sleeve notes, Kennedy acknowledges that the songs were inspired by Williams, as well as Elvis Presley.

Other tributes

The acclaimed musical Hank Williams: Lost Highway recounts the high points and low points of Williams' life through performances of his best known songs. The original cast recording of the show was released in 2003.

The play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave is a fictional account of the concert he was traveling to when he died. Written by Maynard Collins, the play toured across Canada from 1977–1990, and starred Sneezy Waters. A film version was released in 1981. The movie premiered in Canada on April 1, 1981.

Images of a Country Drifter, a tribute to Williams in song and narration, has been performed by singer/songwriter David Church throughout the United States and Canada.

Film director Paul Schrader has a written an as of yet unproduced script entitled Eight Scenes From the Life of Hank Williams.

Quotations

"A good song is a good song, and if I'm lucky enough to write it, well....! I get more kick out of writing than I do singing. I reckon I've written a thousand songs and had over 300 published." — Hank Williams

"When I wrote about Hank Williams 'A hundred floors above me in the tower of song', it's not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. 'Your Cheatin' Heart', songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer."— Leonard Cohen

"I became aware that in Hank's recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars and they had to be there. Even his words - all of the syllables are divided up so they make perfect mathematical sense. You can learn a lot about the structure of songwriting by listening to his records." — Bob Dylan

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