Hank Williams, the voice of pure country music, died 50 years ago today
We don’t know the exact time, but it certainly happened in the wee morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 1, 1953.
The Cadillac had pulled out of Knoxville, Tenn., around midnight on Dec. 31 and was headed for Canton, Ohio, where the man sleeping in the back seat had been booked for a 2 p.m. matinee performance on New Year’s Day.
Hank Williams was the biggest name in country music at the time, but at the age of 29, his personal life and professional career were a shambles.
Four of his songs had gone to No. 1 on the country music charts in 1952, and three of them had made it to No. 2. Just four months earlier, he had been fired from the Grand Ole Opry for a host of unpardonable sins, not the least of which was showing up drunk for performances. Such was the enigma of the man.
It was hinted that if he did well on the Canton show, he would be welcomed back to the Opry again. But when chauffeur Charles Carr pulled the big Caddy into a filling station outside Oak Hill, W.Va., and found his famous passenger cold and blue, it was obvious Williams wouldn’t be playing the Grand Ole Opry ever again.
Williams, more than any other person before or since, best personifies the pure unadulterated sound of country music — so much so that 50 years since his passing, the term “sing me a Hank song” has come to mean only one thing; sing me a gut-wrenching, rip my heart out, ya done me wrong song. Like Williams said, “A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story with music set to it,” and Williams would have many stories to sing before he was finished.
Born Hiram Williams in Mount Olive West, Ala., on Sept. 17, 1923, the family moved to Georgiana, Ala., when he was 7 years old. Young Williams was hawking peanuts for a nickel a bag on the streets of Georgiana when he met a black street performer who would change his life forever.
His name was Rufus Payne, but most people called him Tee-Tot. Williams was already pickin’ and singin’ at that age, but when he heard Tee-Tot singing that raw black blues sound, he was hooked.
Tee-Tot taught his young friend the importance of song structure, of phrasing and sincerity in delivery. Especially delivery — the ability to reach down into one’s soul and pull out all the hurt, sorrow, tears, heartaches and every other human emotion known to man. It would come to be known as the Hank Williams sound, and nobody ever performed it better than its originator.
Payne died in 1939 in Montgomery, Ala., and was buried in a pauper’s grave, never knowing the tremendous success of his young protZgZ.
Williams’ career began in 1937, when he moved to Montgomery with his mother and sister. At age 14, he changed his name to Hank and put together his first band, The Drifting Cowboys. Members came and went over the years, but it was Don Helms on the haunting steel guitar that was so memorable on all those Williams recordings.
Over the next 15 years, Williams and The Drifting Cowboys played juke joints, beer parlors, dives and anywhere else they could make a buck. Often driving all day to reach a gig by nightfall, the strain of little sleep, bad food and a degenerating back problem known as spina bifida were starting to take their toll on Williams.
While on the road performing in the summer of 1943, Williams was thunderstruck by a beautiful young lady who came to see him after the show. Her name was Audrey Mae Sheppard. Theirs was the personification of a love-hate relationship. Twice married and twice divorced, the battles the two had are well documented in the broken marriage hall of fame, where their exploits have attained legendary status. The marriage and its problems were, in fact, a catalyst for many of Williams’ songs.
The turning point in Williams’ career came in 1947. All that we would come to know about him and his music would take place in the next five years. Williams signed that year with Fred Rose of Acuff & Rose Publishing Co.
An accomplished musician in his own right, Rose went to the piano and polished the songs Hank was writing and turned them into classic gems. Rose was also responsible for signing Williams with MGM Records, and when Williams went to Herzog Studio in Cincinnati to cut four tracks on Dec. 22, 1948, all hell broke loose.
Ironically, he hadn’t even written the song that was to launch his fame, “Lovesick Blues.” He had sung it earlier on the “Louisiana Hayride” and did an unbelievable seven encores. In two weeks, it sold 50,000 copies. By early May 1949, “Lovesick Blues” shot down George Morgan’s “Candy Kisses” for the No. 1 position on the country music charts. Hank Williams had arrived.
With a record contract and the song blaring on every radio in the country, Grand Ole Opry Manager Jim Denny could no longer deny the existence or drawing power of Williams. He made his first appearance on the Opry on June 11, 1949, a position he held for three years until the summer of 1952.
In May of ’52, Hank and The Drifting Cowboys made their first and only Las Vegas appearance at the Last Frontier. The two-week engagement lasted but a week before Hank was canceled by Frontier management. Vegas in the early ’50s was still light years away from what it is today. The acts that were in demand were stand-up comedians and lounge acts that consisted of piano players singing off key and telling ribald jokes.
Williams and country music were a long way from home and way out of their element. Even four years later in 1956, when a 21-year-old rock ‘n’ roller was booked at the Frontier, he, too, was canceled before completing his engagement. Thirteen years passed before Elvis Presley returned to Las Vegas in 1969, and set the town and his fans on their collective ears.
But in the summer of 1952, Hank didn’t have 13 years to wait for a return performance. He had, in fact, just seven months to live.
The year of self-destruction for Williams was 1952. In July, he divorced Audrey for the last time. In August, he was fired from the Opry for missed performances and showing up drunk. On Sept. 17, he turned 29 years old, but had the health and body of a man twice that age. A week later, he was at Castle Studios in Nashville and cut four songs that all went to No. 1 on the charts. His signature song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” was one of four he cut that day, but Hank would never know its enormous success, for it was scheduled for release on Jan. 30.
On Oct. 18, he married his girlfriend, Billie Jean Jones, a 19-year-old redheaded beauty he had met at the Opry. Ten years his junior, she tried desperately to turn his life around, but by then, Williams was already past the point of no return. He was by now consuming fatal amounts of legal drugs for a variety of ailments. It’s called polypharmacy, and Elvis would suffer the same fate 25 years later. For Hank, it was just a matter of time — and that time came on New Year’s Day 1953.
A half-century after his death, Hank Williams’ CDs are readily available at any music store or retail outlet dealing in music. For vinyl junkies, there are those great MGM discs (try a used record shop). MGM-SE 4755-2, “24 of Hank Williams Greatest Hits,” is the ultimate vinyl pressing.
They’re all on there — stories with music set to them.