Hiram King Williams could not have been born at a worst time, the onset of the Great Depression. He wasn’t born in the right place either, hailing from tiny Butler County. And, he didn’t come from a musical family. His mom was a caretaker and entrepreneur — a true hustler. His dad was a WWI veteran, a logger, and an engineer on the railways for the WT Smith Lumber Company.
But, for the time and place, his parents were well-connected — his father was a Mason and his mom was in the Order of the Eastern Star. His father had a good job. The Williamses should have lived what passed as a middle class family a century ago. However, as with so much in “Hank’s” short life, what should have been a charmed-but-unconventional life in rural Alabama, was not to be.
From his father’s ghastly injuries in the Great War that resulted in frequent transfers at his job, to the decline of the railroads, to being born with the crippling pain of spina bifida that made him an alcoholic and drug addict most of his life, to his father’s eventual decline and paralysis that left young Hank the family caretaker at the age of 7, to the scrambling and odd jobs that kept the family afloat in the depression, Williams was besieged by the hard scrabble and the hard work and the hard times at an early age.
But, despite all of that, Hank would always say “it could be worse.” And it could.
When the family relocated to Montgomery when he was 8, Hank discovered the radio. And, with the radio as a constant companion, he fell in love with the choirs, folk music, Americana, Western swing, bluegrass and jazz that aired at the time. But, it was when he befriended a homeless black musician in Greeneville, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, that he found his true love: the blues. Trading on Rufus’ knowledge in exchange for meals or work around the house, Hank Williams would prove to have made a good bargain.
At the age of 8, Rufus taught Hank to play the guitar and he taught him the blues. And, most important for the mark he would make upon the world, at that young age, Williams was able synthesize all of those sounds around around him into something unique: modern blues-infused country and western — a musical style marked by blues chord progressions, western swing, bass-heavy backbeat, church choir cadences, and short songs sang in an unmistakable nasally drawl.
From a young age, Hanks’ rise was meteoric. He cut his first record at age 10. By the age of 14, he won his first talent contest — and the princely sum of $15 in 1937. After school and on the weekends, he could be seen busking on the sidewalks of WSFA radio, demanding attention. He got it too. WSFA (now WLWI 1440 in Montgomery) signed him to a twice-a-week, 15-minute show — about a $1100 a month for a high school kid in the middle of the Depression. The show was a hit, as was Hank. Just a year later, in 1938, he would form the band that would be synonymous with him the rest of his life, “The Drifting Cowboys.”
His mother supported him wholeheartedly too, managing the act as Williams dropped out of school to pursue a career in music. But it was also this time that his bad back and life on the road began a lifelong battle with the bottle that he would lose. While his mother supported his career, she couldn’t keep him off the sauce, and Hank would be fired from his lucrative WSFA job in 1942. For three years, until War’s end, the talented Williams — a 4F draft deferment because of his back — had to work manual labor jobs.
The school of hard knocks seemed to help Williams. He got married, seemed to have his life back together, and even got his job back at WSFA. That renewed financial freedom allowed Hank to travel to Nashville in 1946, where he unsuccessfully auditioned for the Grand Ole’ Opry. And while he didn’t get on country’s biggest stage, he did catch the eye of the new Rose-Acuff publishing company, who signed him to a six-song deal with Williams Records.
It was a smash, two of the tracks “Honky-Tonkin’” and “Never Again” were commercial successes and earned him a deal with MGM Records in 1947. History was about to be made.
The next six years would be like a roman candle for Williams as he became Country Western’s first super star, eclipsing even Jimmie Rodgers: dazzling, explosive, brilliant, and ultimately too short.
In just under a decade, Hank would record one instant classic after another: “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy”, “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me”, “Why Should We Try Anymore”, “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 Living,” “Dear John” So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Hey Good Looking,” and “Cold, Cold Heart.”
From 1947 to 1953, Williams reached the Top 10 of the Billboard charts an unbelievable 35 times, and topped the charts with 11 of those standards. And, yes, he eventually did get on the historic main stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry — Ryman Auditorium.
But, having spent half of his life in the bottle, alongside a painkiller habit he had picked up for the bad back, cut a promising career all-too short. At the young age of 29, Hank Williams’ heart gave out: the heart he spoke so metaphorically of being ill-used, had been drowned in whiskey and abused too often in real life.
The impact that the King of Country, its first super star, had cannot be overestimated. In addition to popularizing the genre, he created the template that would mark country going forward — it’s almost a stereotype now, that down-on-my-luck, heartbroken man. And, yes, even his hard-carousing, short life would also be another stereotype adopted by country musicians.
But, it wasn’t just country where Hank’s music made it’s mark. He literally changed greater American music, generating a significant crossover appeal that spilled over and helped shape a new, related genre of music — rock and roll.
His is an appeal that continues to this day, across the world and across popular music.
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