4 July 2023
Hank Williams - Honky Tonk Poet Country music, such as it used to be, was once the bastion of poets who happened to write songs for sale. The first of this illustrious group to be recognized as a hick who could write and sing was Hiram “Hank” Williams.
Born on 17 September 1923 in Mount Olive, Butler County, Alabama, Hiram Williams was the third child of Elonzo Hubie “Lon” and Jessie Lillybelle “Lillie” Williams. Their first child died two days after his birth; a daughter was born that next year, and then along came Hiram, who would eventually become Hank. The family was dirt-poor, but Elonzo refused to live on the dole and, thus, he relocated his wife and two children, often, to find work.
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
It was a peripatetic life, one that seemed the norm during those days of the Deep South when it claimed few profitable legal industries after the Civil War. Poor whites were known as white trash, or, once they moved “up North,” as crackers. I was granted that name by a few church-girls of color; and I found the insult odd since, even at the age of twelve, I knew that my poor ancestors did not hail from the South. For Hank, the tragedies in life started early. He’d inherited the harrowing genetic defect of spina bifida occulta which created unending back pain, the kind that convinced him to self-medicate with alcohol. Undoubtedly, his untimely demise was thereby secured by the age of twenty-nine when he was found dead in 1953 in the backseat of his Cadillac, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day. The headline, Tragic Country Singer, seems all too redundant today. Back then, the catastrophic world of country music had just begun due to the excruciatingly hard life of any man, or woman, growing up in the rural South of the United States. Such a series of adversities, and overcoming those misfortunes, would create the type of poetry set to music that was the stock-in-trade of Hiram Williams (or, as the birth certificate mis-spelled it, Hiriam).
His father had worked as a railroad engineer for a lumber company, after having served in World War I. Severe injuries to his head and collarbone were incurred from falling from a work truck. Those work-place accidents put him in a V.A. — or Veteran’s Administration — Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana sometime in 1930. Hank, for the most part, grew up without a father. Lillie, his mother, took on the duties of raising her children. She ran a boarding house and received “disability”, as such remuneration used to be called, for the condition of her hospitalized husband. This family thereby escaped deep poverty during the Great Depression. Hank was raised in the local church, the Mount Olive Baptist Church, where he picked up the composition of hymns for his own future songs, the classics that live forever. He was a quick study, and inventive, expertly playing the harmonica by the age of six. Stories vary as to exactly when this boy got his first guitar, but by the time he was eight, he was pickin’ and strumming and singing.
He made his radio debut when he was thirteen, then entered talent shows with his own band, Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys. His image, or persona, was pretty well set into motion by this time, in Montgomery, Alabama. His mother became his biggest supporter, driving him and his band to local shows throughout southern Alabama. By 1939, Williams dropped out of school to devote himself full-time to performing in honky-tonks and dance-halls, locally, and as far as western Georgia and the Florida panhandle. A life of playing on the road, drinking up a large portion of the profits, and returning to Montgomery to host his radio show: There was the world of Hank Williams. This high school drop-out would pen lyrics that have yet to be equalled, much less surpassed, in the world of songwriting. He also understood the ironies of life well beyond his years. By the early 1940s, he was writing songs, extraordinarily original songs, from his impressions of the world around him, if only to expand his repertoire.
Marriage to Audrey Sheppard in 1944 brought an end to his mother as road manager and the start of his wife as road manager. Hank started to garner attention, and recognition, for his songwriting. Along with this growing notoriety came an audition for the Grand Ole Opry in the Nashville of true country music. Ernest Tubb had made the recommendation, but Hank was turned down, flat, by the powers-that-were at the Opry. He and Audrey then pitched his songs to the newly formed music publishing firm known as Acuff-Rose Music. Fred Rose, the president of the company, listened to the rather distinct singing of Williams, and to his wildly unique tunes. He signed Hank to a six-song contract. The first recording session of this young man, one who would define the best in country music composition, was 11 December 1946. The post-World War II era coincided with the release of a new type of country song: “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul”, “Calling You”, “Never Again Will I Knock on Your Door”, and “When God Comes and Fathers His Jewels”.
The songs sold so well that a larger label was found by Fred Rose for future releases by Hank Williams. A bright future ought to have been assured for this young man whose talents spanned more than an era, more than generations. The only firm assurance for Hank, however, was a debilitating form of alcoholism that ended his radio contract at WSFA, drove the first wife toward divorcing him in 1952, and, that same year, prompted his dismissal by the Grand Ole Opry which had found Hank, and his self-composed songs, lucratively successful enough to be let into that always highly-selective group. He managed nonetheless to write, sing, record, and perform hit singles. These songs, among many others, are now classics, not merely in country music, but in a great American songbook: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It; Move It On Over; Lovesick Blues; Your Cheatin’ Heart; Hey, Good Lookin’; Kaw-liga; Mind Your Own Business; Cold, Cold Heart; I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You; I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
Hiram Williams never wrote a note of music; he scribbled down his musical thoughts on paper, tunes that became the standard by which success ought to be measured in American music, country or otherwise. He was despised, envied, and slandered during his lifetime; yet, after meeting a most gruesome fate, Hank Williams, the mere name itself, received tributes belonging to a saint. Hypocrisy is ripe, and rife, throughout the world of music, particularly of modern country music, and the world itself. The two-faced phonies come and go, as do the frauds who pretend to be what Hank Williams couldn’t help but be: naturally gifted, and driven toward a destiny that outlived his time on this earth.