Hank Williams, the hillbilly Shakespeare

By Sergio Ariza

Hank Williams was called the hillbilly Shakespeare and, believe me, this is not an exaggeration; his imprint on country music is absolutely gigantic. In just six years of recording career Williams left a legacy that still remains the Rosetta Stone of the genre.   

If the US popular music of the early twentieth century has what is known as the 'Great American Songbook', with composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, country music has the songbook of Hank Williams and there is not a single artist close to that genre who has not done a cover by the singer:
Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Steve Earle and Kacey Musgraves - nobody climbs up on stage at the Grand Ole Opry without knowing Hank's songbook inside out. Cold, Cold Heart, Hey Good Lookin', Honky Tonk Blues, I Saw the Light, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), Lovesick Blues, Move It on Over, Wedding Bells, Your Cheatin' Heart and You Win Again are the country equivalent of jazz standards, Stardust, Body And Soul, Blue Skies, Summertime or My Funny Valentine.


Moreover, their imprint is not only limited to country, but is also a huge influence on many other genres. Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley has always been considered one of the first hits in the history of rock & roll - but listen to Move It on Over, Williams' first hit, and discover that it is practically a copy. Of course Williams was also one of the favorite artists of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but his influence also reached black singers, such as
Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, who did not hesitate to cover his songs, something that has also been done by countless figures outside the Nashville orbit such as James Brown, Jeff Buckley, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Al Green, Beck, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or The Grateful Dead.

But despite being the greatest figure in the history of country music, Williams was taught to play the guitar by an old African-American blues guitarist by the name of Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, proving that the best American music knows no racial barriers and is, like rock & roll itself, a bastard music. The fact is that Williams learned everything from Payne and never tried to hide it, and although his other two great influences were two of the fathers of country music, Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers, he always recognized Payne as his only teacher.


When he started singing professionally, in 1937, he changed his name from Hiram, with which he was born on September 17, 1923, to Hank, which is much more appropriate for a country singer. His career began on the radio, after winning a contest there were so many calls asking for more of the "singing kid" that the producers gave him a 15-minute slot of his own twice a week. His radio salary allowed him to form a band and thus the first formation of the Drifting Cowboys came about; and in 1939 he left school to focus on his music career and play in as many joints and honky tonks as possible. His alcohol abuse began at this time when almost all his salary went on drink, even though he wasn't even old enough to buy it...

World War II spelled the end of the early Drifting Cowboys, although Williams himself escaped being drafted, having broken his back falling off a bull during a rodeo, but the rest of the band was enlisted in the army. Williams tried several replacements but they all fled shortly after seeing his drinking excesses. It was so common for Williams to appear drunk on his own show that the station eventually fired him. It was around the same time that he met one of his idols, Roy Acuff, who told him a lapidary phrase: "You’ve got a million dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain".


In the end, the legendary talent would prevail and Williams recorded his first songs at the end of 1946, shortly after being rejected by the Grand Ole Opry. In 1947 his first hit came with Move It On Over, the first of 35 songs that would break into the top 10 of the country charts within a few years. His was a dizzying career in which he never let his foot off the accelerator for a single moment. His drinking problem was compounded by his turbulent marriage to Audrey Sheppard, who also became his manager. Fights started early and infidelities came from both sides.

Still, once his career took off he was unstoppable, in 1949 alone he had seven chart hits, including what may be the saddest and most devastating song in the history of American popular music, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, in which Williams opened his heart wide, possibly thinking of one of his many fights with Sheppard. By that time he already had his mythical acoustic guitar, his 1941 Martin D-28. That same year also came other wonders such as Lovesick Blues, Wedding Bells and Lost Highway.


In 1950 Williams was already the biggest star in country music - of the eight singles he released that year, all of them made it into the top ten and three were number one, including the wonderful Moanin' The Blues, in which vocally his singing recalled Jimmie Rodgers but musically it was a blues, with the addition of the wonderful pedal steel of Don Helms and the fiddle of Jerry Rivers.

But in the midst of his feverish success Williams decided he also wanted to record recited songs, Talkin' Blues style, telling moralistic stories. It was another side of him, but his producer, Fred Rose, convinced him to release them under a pseudonym, Luke The Drifter. These songs showed another side of his personality, if Hank Williams was a stubborn drunk, Luke The Drifter was moralistic and compassionate, someone with the wisdom that the man with the "ten-cent brain" always dodged. Yet Williams never did anything to avoid being related to Luke and in his concerts he also played these songs ironically presenting them as his "twin brother's" songs....


In any case, Hank Williams did not follow Luke's advice and continued to drink his life away in large gulps. It didn't help that morphine was part of his daily diet to alleviate his back pain, but what made it all worse were his continuous fights with Audrey, in a clear case of a "neither with you, nor without you" relationship; for evidence of that, check out, for example, another of the best songs of his career, released in 1951, Cold, Cold Heart. It seems that his wife was in the hospital after a miscarriage and Williams went to visit her after one of his tours, he approached her and leaned over to kiss her, but Audrey rejected him and said "get out of the way you son of a bitch, it's your fault I'm here". Williams went home and remarked to Hank Jr.'s carer, "Audrey has a cold, cold heart," and before long his resentment had turned into the biggest hit of his career to date.

It all got worse when on New Year's Eve 1951 Audrey called Hank from a hotel and told him that when he came home she didn't want to see him around. Williams replied with these prophetic words "Audrey, I won't live a whole year without you". Despite being country's biggest star, Hank Williams went to live with his mother, healing his broken heart with more alcohol, morphine and other women.


In June 1952 he returned to the recording studio. This time in his band there was a new guitarist named Chet Atkins, who could see that something was not right with his boss. The songs were as wonderful as ever, among them Jambalaya and I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, but Atkins saw that the title of the latter was not as much of a joke as it might seem when he saw how Williams had to sit down between takes to catch his breath. On July 10 Williams signed his divorce papers and the next day he went back into the studio, again with Atkins and the indispensable Don Helms on pedal steel, to record You Win Again, I Won't Be Home No More and Please Make Up Your Mind. More than songs, they sounded like pages torn from Williams' personal diary: "You have no heart, you have no shame, you take true love and give the blame. I guess I shouldn't complain, I love you still, you win again."

Soon after he began dating a woman called Billie Jean Jones but his erratic behavior did not change. In August he was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry for missing several concerts and appearing drunk at others; yet at the time Jambalaya was at the top of the charts.


On September 23, three months before his inevitable premature death, Hank Williams had one of the most productive recording sessions in his career, recording Your Cheatin' Heart, I Could Never Be Ashamed Of You, Kaw Liga and Take These Chains From My Heart, again with Atkins and Helms present. In October he married Jones and a month later I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive was released.

On December 31, just a year after his prophecy to Audrey, Williams was scheduled to play a concert in Charleston but an ice storm had paralyzed air traffic in Nashville. So Williams hired someone to drive him there. It was impossible to get there so they decided to leave for Ohio, where he was scheduled for a New Year's concert. Sometime in the wee hours of that morning Williams' heart stopped beating. In the car they found several empty beer cans and a notebook with several song lyrics written down.    


Up to the last moment of his life Hank Williams was drinking his life away but always with a pencil close - to continue writing songs; 167 in total for a life that did not reach 30. The best of all saw the light a few days after the news of his death - it is Your Cheatin' Heart, a last look at the tortured love of his life, Audrey Sheppard: " When tears come down like fallin' rain, You'll toss around and call my name, You'll walk the floor the way I do, Your cheatin' heart will tell on you" Williams' voice sounds broken and rapturous, Atkins accompanies him caressingly on guitar, while the melancholy, lonely sound of Helms' pedal steel is the perfect accompaniment to Williams' voice.

Country music was forever defined by an artist who made his life a tragic work of art and whose legacy is the one to which all those who have approached, even a little, country music look to, whether they be the more conventional Nashville types or the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings type outlaws who - 25 years after Williams' death - questioned in song all of Nashville hierarchy, who supposedly surrendered to Hank's legacy, but were unable to see that beyond the Rhinestone suits, pedal steel and fiddle, the key to Williams was authenticity. It always pays to be reminded every now and then, within one of music's most conservative industries, of the title of that Jennings’ song, "Are you sure Hank done it this way?"