The words and music of Hank Williams echo across the decades with a timelessness that transcends genre.
He brought country music into the modern era, and his influence spilled over into the folk and rock arenas as well. Artists ranging from Gram Parsons and John Fogerty to the Georgia Satellites and Uncle Tupelo have adapted elements of Williams’ persona, especially the aura of emotional forthrightness and bruised idealism communicated in his songs. Some of Williams’ more upbeat country and blues-flavored numbers, on the other hand, anticipated the playful abandon of rockabilly.
He was born Hiram Williams, in Mount Olive, Alabama, in 1923. Williams learned gospel music from his Baptist-church organist mother and blues and pop from a black street musician. By age 16, he’d formed the first version of his legendary Drifting Cowboys and was playing on a local radio station. The early Forties found him performing one-nighters at roadhouses across Alabama. He moved to Nashville in 1946, where he signed with the famed Acuff-Rose publishing company and landed a recording contract with MGM the following year. His initial MGM release, “Move It On Over,” was a rocking country blues made popular all over again in the Seventies by George Thorogood. In 1949, his “Lovesick Blues” topped the C&W chart and then remained in the Top 15 for ten months. His debut on the Grand Ol’ Opry that same year earned him six encores, and he became a regular cast member. “Lovesick Blues” was the first of 11 million-selling singles for Williams over the next four years. All totaled, Williams cracked the C&W Top Ten 36 times in the 1940s and 1950s.
Williams was a prolific tunesmith, powerful singer and magnetic performer. His best-known songs - “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” - endure as American classics, speaking in eloquent vernacular to fans of country, blues, pop and rock and roll alike. Williams also recorded some gospel-style material pseudonymously as “Luke the Drifter.” At the height of his career, he virtually reinvented the country idiom, paving the way for a new breed of songwriter. The “outlaw” school of country singer-songwriters who followed in Williams’ wake - including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and his own son, Hank Williams Jr. - would have been inconceivable without Williams’ rough-cut artistry. However, problems with drugs and alcohol led to Williams’ premature death by heart attack at age 29 while en route to a show. In 1961, Williams was the first artist elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, a tribute indicative of his impact.