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Hiram King "Hank" Williams (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was an Americanmarker singer and songwriter and musician who has become an icon of country music and one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century. A leading pioneer of the honky tonk style, he had numerous hit records, and his charismatic performances and succinct compositions increased his fame.

His songbook is a backbone of country music, and several of his songs are pop standards as well. He has been covered in a range of pop, gospel, blues and rock styles. His death at the age of 29 helped fuel his legend. His son Hank, Jr., daughter Jett, and grandchildren Hank Williams III, Holly Williams, and Hilary Williams are also professional singers. He was ranked 27th in Rolling Stone's Greatest Singers of All Time.


Early life

Williams was born in a log cabin in Mount Olive, Alabamamarker, to Elonzo Huble "Lon" Williams and Jessie Lillybelle "Lillie" Skipper. He was named after Hiram I of Tyre, 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 Lon's and Lillie's third and last child together, preceded by a brother who died shortly after birth, and sister Irene.

His 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 Affairsmarker clinic in Pensacola, Floridamarker, doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, so they sent Elonzo Williams to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisianamarker. Lonnie remained hospitalized for eight years and was therefore mostly absent throughout Hank's childhood.

In 1931, Lillie Williams settled her family in Georgiana, Alabamamarker, 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 Lon's military disability pension. Despite Lon's medical condition, the Williams family managed fairly well financially throughout the Depression.

In 1933, Hank Williams moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his uncle and aunt, Walter and Alice (née Skipper) McNeil. Meanwhile, his cousin Opal McNeil moved in with the Williams family in Georgiana to attend the high school there. 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, Alabamamarker, where Lillie then opened a boarding house next to the Butler Countymarker courthouse. In 1937, Williams got into a fight with his physical-education coach. Furious with the coach, his mother demanded that the school board fire him. When the school board refused to take action, she decided to move the family to Montgomerymarker.

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 WSFAmarker 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's 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.

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 Georgiamarker, 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 Hank 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 Oprymarker 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 ", "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.


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, Louisianamarker, 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 Oprymarker, 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 Williams for use in identifying his religion-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than his usual crooning. 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.

Hank Williams's 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 ", "Settin' the Woods on Fire", "You Win Again" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Williams's drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashvillemarker 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 Oprymarker. 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, he 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 Hank 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 Hank's 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 Hank. 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.


On January 1, 1953, Williams was due to play in Canton, Ohiomarker, but he was unable to fly due to weather problems. He hired a chauffeur and, before leaving the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennesseemarker, injected himself with vitamin B12 and morphine. He then left in a Cadillac, though contrary to popular belief, he did not have a bottle of whiskey with him. The only items found in the back seat of his car were a few cans of beer and the hand-written lyrics to an unrecorded song.

When the 17-year-old chauffeur, Charles Carr pulled over at an all-night service station in Oak Hill, West Virginiamarker, he discovered that Williams was unresponsive and becoming rigid. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that Hank Williams was dead. He was 29. The official cause of death was heart failure, but there’s still some mystery about the circumstances. Controversy has since surrounded Williams's death, with some claiming Williams was dead before leaving Knoxville.

Williams's final single 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 his death. The song stayed at number one in 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 the song in 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

His son Hank Williams, Jr., daughter Jett Williams, grandson Hank Williams III, and granddaughters Hilary Williams and Holly Williams are also country musicians.

Williams ranked #2 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003, behind only Johnny Cash. His son, Hank, Jr., ranked #20 on that same list.

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

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him #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 white 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 Hank Williams's heirs—son Hank Williams Jr. and daughter Jett Williams—have the sole rights to sell his old recordings made for a Nashville, Tennesseemarker 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-AMmarker. 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.


Year Award Awards Notes
1989 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration Grammy with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Music Video of the Year CMA with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Vocal Event of the Year CMA with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Video of the Year Academy of Country Music with Hank Williams, Jr.
1990 Vocal Collaboration of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams, Jr.
1990 Video of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams, Jr.
2003 Ranked #2 of the 40 Greatest Men of Country Music CMT

Music videos

Year Video Notes
1989 "There's A Tear In My Beer" with Hank Williams, Jr.
"Honky Tonk Blues"




Songs that pay tribute to Hank Williams include:
  • "Hank Williams' Ghost" by Darrell Scott.
  • "Hank and Fred" by Loudon Wainwright III.
  • "A Tribute To Hank Williams, My Buddy" by Luke McDaniel.
  • "The Car Hank Died In" by The Austin Lounge Lizards.
  • "Heart's Hall of Fame" by the Bailey Brothers.
  • "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life" by Moe Bandy (written by Paul Craft).
  • "Long White Cadillac" was originally recorded by The Blasters. The song was written and later performed by guitarist Dave Alvin after he left the group. It was also covered by Dwight Yoakam.
  • "The Ride" by David Allan Coe tells the story of a drifting singer's encounter with the ghost of Hank Williams on a journey from Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee.
  • "Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen.
  • "Talkin To Hank" by Mark Chesnutt.
  • "A Legend Froze In Time" by David Church.
  • "Hank Williams Said It Best" by Guy Clark and also covered recently by Mick Harvey.
  • "Alcohol and Pills" by Fred Eaglesmith and covered by Todd Snider.
  • "Tribute To Hank Williams" by Tim Hardin.
  • "The Life of Hank Williams" by Hawkshaw Hawkins.
  • "Midnight in Montgomery" by Alan Jackson.
  • "Here's to Hank" by Stonewall Jackson.
  • "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town" by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
  • "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?", "If Old Hank Could Only See Us Now", and "Hank Williams Syndrome", all by Waylon Jennings.
  • "The Conversation" by Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr., with the opening lyric sung by Jennings, "Hank, let's talk about your daddy."
  • "Hank's Cadillac" by the group of the same name.
  • "Hank Williams' Cadillac" and "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight" by Chris Wall.
  • "The Great Hank" by Robert Earl Keen, detailing a dream in which Hank Williams is singing in drag in a bar.
  • "Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?" by The Waterboys.
  • "The Ghost Of Hank Williams" by the Kentucky Headhunters.
  • "If You Don't Like Hank Williams" by Kris Kristofferson.
  • "Things Change" by Tim McGraw and "I Need You" by McGraw and wife Faith Hill.
  • "Hank's Cadillac" by Ashley Monroe.
  • "Nosferatu Man" by Slint contains the lyrics, "If I could settle down, I'd be doing just fine/Until I hear that old train, coming down the line" from Williams's song "Ramblin' Man".
  • "Mission from Hank" by Aaron Tippin. Tippin also references Williams in "Ready to Rock (in a Country Kind of Way)".
  • "Time to Change my Name to Hank" written by Jim Flynn.
  • "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight" by Jerry Jeff Walker.
  • "Crank the Hank" by Dallas Wayne.
  • "Family Tradition" by Hank Williams, Jr.
  • "Tribute to Hank Williams" by Charles Manson.
  • "If He Came Back Again" by The Highwaymen.
  • "Classic Cars" by Bright Eyes.
  • "Curse of Hank" by Tim Hus.
  • "Rollin' and Ramblin' (The Death of Hank Williams) R. & L. Williams and J. Clark".
  • "This Old Guitar" by Neil Young refers to Williams's original D-28 Martin guitar, which Young has toured with for over 30 years.
  • "Tramp on Your Street" by Billy Joe Shaver.
  • "The Death of Hank Williams" and "Hank Williams Sings the Blues No More", both by Jimmie Logsdon.
  • "Hats Off to Hank" by Buzz Cason.
  • "I Couldn't Sleep for Thinkin' Of Hank Williams" by Henry McCullough
  • "Don't Look Down" by Grant Lee Phillips contains the lines, "Luke The Drifter and me thumbed us a ride down the highway of dreams".
  • "Rebel Meets Rebel" by Rebel Meets Rebel includes the chorus, "Rebel meets rebel, we've got our pride, like old Hank said, it's been a long, hard ride".
  • "The Grand Ole Opry (Ain't So Grand Anymore)" by Hank Williams III includes the lyrics, "The Grand Ole Opry ain't so grand anymore/Did you know Hank Williams ain't a member, but they keep him outside their door".
  • "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" by George Jones refers to Williams in the lines, "You know the heart of country music still beats in Luke the Drifter, you can tell it when he sang 'I Saw the Light'".
  • "Hank Williams" by Ry Cooder.
  • "Roberta" by Rev. Billy C. Wirtz (underneath the black velvet painting of Elvis, Jesus and John Wayne walking together through eternity, watched over by Hank Sr.)

Other songs include: "Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You", "Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers", "Tribute to Hank Williams", "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul", "Hank Williams Will Live Forever", "The Ghost of Hank Williams," "In Memory of Hank Williams", "Thanks Hank", "Hank's Home Town", "Good Old Boys Like Me" (Hank Williams and Tennessee Williams), , "Why Ain't I Half as Good as Old Hank (Since I'm Feeling All Dead Anyway)?", "The Last Letter" (Mississippi disc jockey Jimmy Swan's reading of a letter to Williams by M-G-M boss Frank Walker) and Charley Pride's album There's a Little Bit of Hank in Me. (Brackett 2000, p.219-22).

"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 Hank Williams's and Johnny Horton's deaths. The lyrics relevant 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).


Hank 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's 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's 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 Canada on September 7, 1981. In America, HBO premiered the movie on December 31, 1981. Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, Internet Movie Database]

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


  • "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


  2. Koon, George William; Koon, Bill (2001), Hank Williams, So Lonesome, University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 9781578062836, pp.69-70
  3. Ibid. p.70
  4. Escott, Colin; Merritt, George; MacEwen, William (2004), Hank Williams: The Biography, Back Bay, ISBN 9780316734974, p.241
  5. Koon, p.72
  6. vitia » Blog Archive » This Isn’t Hank’s Story
  8. Jett Williams ~ News Flash
  12. Gleason, Ralph (06-28-1969). 1952 interview of Hank Williams. Rolling Stone.

Further reading

External links

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