Skip to main content

The Greatness of Hank Williams—As Explored in a New Biography

The Greatness of Hank Williams—As Explored in a New Biography

Hank Williams was the last echo of the barbaric yawp from Walt Whitman’s America. In just five short years, from 1948 to his death in the backseat of a car on the way to a concert on January 1, 1953, he recorded 66 songs, most of them his own compositions, many of which can still be heard on radio stations almost anywhere in the world. A Nashville songwriter named Harlan Howard summed them up in a nutshell: “Three chords and the truth.”

Every American and just about everyone who knows something about America recognizes at least a refrain from “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love With You,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?,” “Jambalaya,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and perhaps a score of other songs, whether in versions by Williams himself or Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, James Brown, Linda Ronstadt, the Bee Gees, and even Lawrence Welk. What other songwriter been covered by Nat King Cole, the Grateful Dead, and Lawrence Welk?

Primarily due to legal squabbles within the Williams family that kept letters and papers out of the hands of potential biographers, and partly because his personal history was so unrelentingly bleak, Williams’s life and work has received surprisingly little serious attention. His own home state of Alabama, which could never quite decide if it regarded him as a suitable native son, did not erect a statue of him until 1991, and not until 1993 were his lyrics taken seriously enough to be published between covers. Not until 1995 did he receive a definitive biography, Hank Williams, by the music historian Colin Escott, who also co-produced the comprehensive set of Williams’s recordings, The Complete Hank Williams. And not until Paul Hemphill’s new Lovesick Blues – The Life of Hank Williams (Viking, $23.95) has Williams been the subject of a book as exhilarating as his music.

Hemphill, the Birmingham-born journalist whose 1970 The Nashville Sound was many a college student’s first guide to country music, has now given us in Lovesick Blues perhaps the first book that could be read with equal pleasure by both Hank Williams and his current generation of fans. Like his subject, Hemphill keeps the story lean and simple.

Hiram “Hank” Williams, a logger’s son, grew up in tiny West Mount Olive, Alabama, in a log cabin in back of a country store. Once the family was settled, the father, Lonnie, split, and Hank didn’t see him for another ten years. Little Hank roamed the town, listening to music at both white and black churches. “Rather than relying on secondary sources,” Hemphill writes, “—commercial radio, tape recordings, songwriting lessons—he had gone straight to the roots” of his music. His first direct influence was a black professional musician named Rufus Payne, known by the locals as “Tee-Tot.” Payne gave Hank an informal course in nearly half a century of Southern music—country blues, gospel, and medicine show tunes. He taught him something else, too: poor folks wanted to see a performer who looked better than they did. When he became a professional, Hank would emulate his teacher, always performing in a hat, coat and tie.

Thin, pale, and suffering from the boyhood ravages of spina bifida, the teenage Williams became an alcoholic. He dropped out of school and got his education in a circuit of clubs that, as Hemphill puts it, “had a particular edge to them; which is to say you could get killed in there.” It was the only work he would ever know, and when he showed up he was good at it. When he didn’t he risked the wrath of small-time mobsters like Jack Ruby (yes, that Jack Ruby). His voice, lyrics, and onstage charisma soon won him a huge following, but his erratic behavior and reputation were anathema to the establishment represented by the Grand Ole Opry. His idol, Roy Acuff, told him, “You got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain.”

Perhaps, but as one of his band members put it, “For a man like that, to make that kind of impression on mankind, he had to be a genius. Education might’ve ruined him.” He had an amazing natural poetic gift, honed by a partnership with a Nashville producer named Fred Rose, and together they came up with lyrics that would make a fin-de-siècle French poet weep:

“The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, 
And as I’m wondering where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

He possessed an innate sense of what his audience wanted because, as G. K. Chesterton said of Dickens, he wanted the same things they wanted. Though Williams was the first country songwriter whose work was recorded by mainstream popular singers, he resisted the trend toward greater sophistication; when one of his musicians asked if a recording sounded “too country,” he answered, “It’s never too country.”

Hank Williams was the greatest star of the heroic era of country music in the years following the World War II, when the songs were “written and performed by Southern boys and girls not a day’s bus ride from the cotton fields or Appalachian hollows whence they had come. . . . To people in cities like Chicago and New York, especially the more sophisticated songwriters on Tin Pan Alley, country music was for losers. But for people like my father, it was the latest news from home.”

Who could have guessed that more than half a century later, in cities like Chicago and New York and London and Tokyo and Moscow, that news would still seem so current?

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.