Personalities | Hank Williams | War Years | Country

Rural Alabama-born Hiram Williams (1923–53) has emerged in the half-century since his death – at age 29 – as the archetypal honky-tonk artist and arguably the single most influential artist in modern country music.

The songs that Williams wrote and sang in the course of his short and none-too-sweet life – ‘Hey Good Lookin’,’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, ‘Cold Cold Heart’, ‘Lost Highway’, ‘I Can’t Help It’– have been covered countless times over the years by country and pop artists alike. The power of Williams’ music lies in its unadorned emotional sincerity, plainspoken poeticism and his uncanny knack for turning his personal despair into music that has proven universal and enduring.

Musical Rendezvous

Williams was born in Mount Olive, Alabama, in 1923, the son of a log truck driver who suffered from shell shock after the First World War. The family lived in relative poverty and Williams was plagued by health problems throughout his entire life. His parents separated when he was six years old. His father Lon was confined to a veterans’ hospital while young Hank moved several times with his mother Lillie, finally landing in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1931.

Williams was an indifferent student, but even as a youngster he was consumed by music. He spent hours listening to records and learning the songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. After he won a local talent contest in 1937 – singing a song he wrote called ‘W.P.A. Blues’ – there was no turning back. He soon had his own radio show on a Montgomery station and had developed a small but devoted cadre of local fans.

In 1942, he volunteered to serve in the wartime army but was turned down because of a back disorder – a congenital spine defect that caused him pain and discomfort his entire life. He ended up working in the shipyards in Mobile, Alabama and began assembling a core of talented backup musicians who would later become The Drifting Cowboys, his permanent band.

Williams’ star-crossed rendezvous with musical history began in September 1946 when he got an audience with legendary Nashville songwriter and publisher Fred Rose. Rose immediately grasped the scope of Williams’ raw talent. Just two months later, Rose produced Williams’ earliest master recordings for the Sterling record label.

Williams’ Sterling records earned a positive enough reception to land him a contract with the newly formed MGM Records. And in 1947, he recorded and released ‘Move It On Over’, which turned even more heads toward the wayward young singer, who was already developing a reputation for hard drinking, emotional instability and undependability.

Around this time, he also began appearing on the Louisiana Hayride and was soon one of the most popular performers on the show.

Hank’s Last Ride

Shortly afterward, he recorded one of his first chart-topping hits, ‘Lovesick Blues’ – his honky-tonk reprise of an old pop song previously recorded in the 1920s by Emmett Miller. An invitation to make a guest appearance on the Grand Ole...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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