So before we begin with today’s piece, I just want to give some background as to what this is. In my college days, I wrote a paper on Hank Williams for one of my History classes. I want to grow this blog into something that exposes parts of country music’s rich history, so I figured, hey, why not upload this? Hopefully you find it to be interesting in some way. I got an A+ on this as well. Just sayin’
When discussing one’s impact on music and its culture, one could argue that everything presented throughout the discussion is subjective rather than objective. When focusing specifically on country music, this argument stands. In fact, as it stands right now, there are three men who could arguably claim the title of “the king of country music”. There’s Roy Acuff who not only set the table for country music as a commercial enterprise, but also was deemed the king by baseball legend Dizzy Dean (Folkart, 1992). Then there’s king George Strait who holds the record for having the most number one hits out of any other performer in history with sixty of them (Spong, 2014). However, while Hiram King “Hank” Williams did not live as long as the aforementioned men, his influence arguably had the most widespread impact of the three kings within country music not just within the genre itself, but within music as a whole.
Hank Williams was born September 17th, 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama. From his early life, Hank was always involved with some music in some type of way. His mother, Lilly played the organ at the Mt. Olive West Baptist Church, the same place where Hank sang in the choir. Hank’s mother Lilly was also the person who helped to give Hank his very first guitar. Using that guitar, Hank started his musical education. The foundation for most of what would later become Hank’s songwriting stemmed from his lessons with blues singer, Rufus Payne (Erlewine). It was there that Hank learned how to play the guitar as well as sing the blues. Hank and his family moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1937, the same year that Hank formed a band known as the Drifting Cowboys. He had won a contest by singing his song, “W.P.A Blues” which managed to help land him a twice-weekly radio show on WSFA (Simon, Schuster, 2001). It was on there where Hank would sing songs from his idols such as Roy Acuff as well as other well-known country music artists of the time. By December 1944, Hank had married his first wife, Audrey Mae Sheppard in Andalusia, Alabama. From there, with Audrey as his newly appointed manager, Hank set out for Nashville for a career in country music.
In 1946, Hank had signed a songwriting contract with Nashville publishers Acuff-Rose where he then recorded in Nashville under the Sterling label. Of course, when Hank moved to Nashville, he had intentions to get in touch with producer and music publisher Fred Rose, which he did that same year. After a string of unsuccessful songs, Hank Williams managed to snag two big hits with his songs “Never Again” in December 1946 and “Honky Tonkin’” in February 1947, earning him a contract with MGM Records. In addition, Fred Rose also became Hank Williams’ manager and record producer (Erlewine). Eventually in 1949, Hank Williams recorded a Tin Pan Alley song initially recorded by Emmett Miller titled “Lovesick Blues”, a song that became Williams’ first number one hit. That same song stayed at the top of the charts for sixteen weeks as well as crossed over onto the Pop charts into the top twenty-five. That success for Hank Williams continued onwards throughout his career as he began to accumulate more hits as well as tour on the road more frequently. In fact, all seemed more than well for Hank and his family.
This newfound fame that Hank had acquired came with its tolls however. As his music career rose onward and upward, his personal life spiraled downward. His drinking problem that he had developed before becoming a star had affected him greatly, and his constant troubles with his wife resulted in their marriage ending in divorce. As if these both weren’t enough trouble, Hank also suffered from chronic back pains which resulted in a dependence on painkillers. His personal life also eventually caught up with his career, as he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry in 1952 for frequently missing shows he had promised to give. On January 1st, 1953, Hank Williams was on his way to a show in Canton, Ohio via a Cadillac. Before leaving, Hank was injected with two shots of vitamin B-12 and morphine by his doctor. On the way to the show, the chauffeur was pulled over for speeding. When the policeman looked inside the car he noticed that Hank wasn’t moving. Hank was rushed to the West Virginia Hospital where he was officially declared dead at 7 A.M. that same day. The cause of death was a heart attack, and Hank was buried in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of twenty-nine years old.
While Hank Williams’ physical body would be left to decay, his spirit and influence would live on forever. Actually, one could argue that Hank’s early death only elevated his legacy. Immediately after his death, Hank Williams hit number one with a single called “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”, a song that most likely boasts the most ironic title in the history of music. After his death, many more singles from Hank went to number one, including one of his most famous songs, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. In addition to success on the charts, these singles all sold more than ever, propelled most likely by fans’ reaction to his death. Of course, business is nothing more than business, and sure enough, the immediate aftermath of his success on the charts with his singles began to fade away, with “Weary Blues from Waitin’” being his last charting single (excluding special releases). To say however that Hank Williams was “forgotten” after that chart success faded however would be a preposterous statement.
There is one aspect of Hank Williams’ career that has arguably cemented his legacy more so than anything else. While taking a look at the time period in which he lived would be beneficial to understanding this aspect, one can understand this aspect simply by observing an event that occurred after Hank’s life. In 2010, The Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Hank Williams for his lifetime achievement as a musician, despite his short time on earth (CNN, Apr. 2010). He was awarded “for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life” (Pulitzer, 2010). That sense of “poignant simplicity” is exactly what the foundation for Hank’s music was. Hank’s music was country in name, but really it was much harder to define than that. His blend of hillbilly music, gospel, and blues learned from Rufus Payne was essentially just simple music that was infused with fragments of Hank’s dark and ragged personal life which gave way to music that resonated with people.
While it has been established that Hank’s music touches on all borders of the music world, one cannot view that influence without first observing his influence on the genre he called home – country music. In 1961, Hank became one of the first ever inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose, the man who helped make Hank’s career possible. In addition, Hank’s career had an impact not only on the artistic side of the genre, but also on the business side of it as well. Prior to Hank’s death in 1953, country music had seemed to be moving away from its honky-tonk roots that artists like Hank had laid down. The reason for this was because of the emergence of rock and roll, a genre that proved to be a formidable commercial competitor for country music (Comstock, Orr, Wills, 2015). What took its place was called “The Nashville Sound”, which got its name from having lusher production techniques such as heavy string sections and backing vocals to make songs more sophisticated, otherwise known as giving these songs crossover appeal. Chet Atkins literally referred to it as, “a way to sell records and make money”, cementing the advent of this sound as nothing more than business. Furthermore, it could even be argued that Hank Williams would not have lasted much longer in the country genre given his style.
Hank Williams’ influence certainly could not be seen in the Nashville Sound, however it was because of artists like him that a rebellion took place against this sound. This rebellion which started around the mid-1970’s was known as the “Outlaw Country movement” (Patterson, 2015). Within this movement, artists who were a part of this movement demanded that to make music that was more reflective of the roots of country music rather than the lush sounds emanating out of Nashville. However, it was not the change in sound that made this movement as revolutionary as it is today. Artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson demanded to be able to make country music, sure, but they also demanded artistic freedom, or rather the desire to have full creative control over their music. This was something that no artist had done in that day. There begs the question as to why artists such as Jennings or Nelson would get as worked up as they did about music, and the answer relates back to artists like Hank Williams. In Waylon Jennings’ song, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, Jennings specifically states lines such as “Ole Hank made it here, we’re all sure that you will, but I don’t think Hank done it this way”, questioning whether or not someone like Hank would condone what was happening in country music at the time. If anything, it establishes a link between Hank Williams influencing country music artists after his death. Sure, one could argue that artists returning to their roots is anything but revolutionary, but digging deeper, Hank also inspired artists to be artists rather than mere puppets on strings for their record labels. That’s not even to mention the fact that country music is a genre that has always been distinctive from other genres for holding onto its roots. This pull between country music being morphed into a commercially viable entity and then returning to its roots has occurred numerous times since then, but it is those links to the past that always make sure the cycle never wanders too far off its path.
Of course, as stated before, the sign of any true musician is one that shows not just an impact on the genre in which the artist was involved with, but also the greater music world as a whole. According to Neil Kellas in his essay of Hank’s influence titled, Cold, Cold Heart, Hank’s music was among the clearest precursors of Rock & Roll, as he laid the foundation for the musical and cultural revolution before artists like Elvis Presley made their impact in the 1950’s. As he states, Hank’s role was a crucial one initially in the development of postwar country music (Kellas, 2004). Indeed, Hank’s style was the type of style that went on to influence artists such as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis along with Sun Records as a whole. Kellas also goes on to describe Williams’ hit, “Move It On Over” as a “rock & roll record in all but name, years ahead of its time”.
In addition to his influence on rock and roll, Hank’s influence was seen elsewhere, such as Pop and Folk. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” remains one of Hank’s biggest hits, and according to some may even be a song that defines country music. However, rhythm and blues singer Ray Charles also made the song a hit, as his version of the song climbed to #29 in 1962, proving that genre had imposed no boundaries on the song’s impact (Songfacts). Ray wasn’t alone either. In addition to him, artists such as Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford, Joni James, and Frankie Laine also recorded the song. None of them were country artists, but they could see the power of a song for what it was worth. To look at a more modern example, artist Norah Jones is known to regularly cover the song in her setlists (Kellas, 2004).
One could discuss Hank’s influence on a multitude of different genres and still only scratch the surface of this topic. That is why it is important to look at a piece of history that showcases artists from all sorts of various genres honoring Hank. Bob Dylan is arguably the person who was influenced most by Hank Williams. As Dylan himself states, “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting” (Light, 2011). Dylan was part of a mission to collect the lyrics for dozens of unrecorded songs by Williams. The project was called “The Lost Notebook Of Hank Williams”, and the project was released on Oct. 4th, 2011. Through it, Dylan assembled artists in the vein of Country and Rock such as Jack White, Norah Jones, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, and Sheryl Crow to put these lyrics to melodies. The project’s foundation came into fruition when the 2002 Hank Williams tribute album, Timeless won a Grammy for best country album of that year. One of that record’s executive producers Mary Martin, was approached by Peggy Lamb, the Hank Williams authority at Williams’s publishing company, Acuff-Rose. Ms. Lamb told her about the cardboard box containing four notebooks and scattered scraps of paper full of Williams’s unrecorded lyrics that was locked in a vault in her office. There were sixty-six songs in all (Light, 2011). Lamb’s idea was to initially have one artist record all of these songs, however it was decided that this was too daunting of a task. Bob Dylan was the first artist considered for this project, but together, Dylan and Lamb thought of potential artists to seek for recording these songs. This concept of collecting these songs and persevering them is certainly a key aspect of country music, but really it’s an aspect that has been a part of America’s music history forever. Again, it proved that Hank’s influence had no boundaries.
Overall, Hank Williams’ time on Earth may have been short, but his impact was not. Through his lifestyle and his music, Hank not only made standards with his music, but also set standards for how to write impactful songs. Not only did he help to gain country music more exposure, he also had an impact on the music world in general. He never got out of this world alive, but he breathed life into creating an influence for many musicians to start their careers.
- CNN Wire Staff. “Hank Williams among 2010 Pulitzer winners.” CNN. 13 April, 2010. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Comstock, Orr, and Wills. “The Nashville Sound”. Country Music Project. 25 February, 2015. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Erlewine, Stephen, T. “About Hank Williams”. CMT Artists. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Folkart, Burt, A. “Roy Acuff, First Superstar of Country Music, Dies : Entertainment: Tennessee singer, 89, was a mainstay of the Grand Ole Opry for more than half a century”. Los Angeles Times. 24 November, 1992. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- “Hank Williams”. Pulitzer. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- “Hank Williams.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 November, 2016. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Kellas, Neil. “Cold Cold Heart”. Cold Cold Heart. Music Rent Incorporation. 2004. CD. 22 November, 2016.
- Kemp, Mark. “Hank Williams Bio”. Rolling Stone. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Lankford, Ronnie, D. “About Audrey Williams”. CMT Artists. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Light, Alan. “Stars Add New Tunes To Country King’s Lyrics”. The New York Times. 23 September, 2011. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Patterson, Evan. “Outlaw Music: Its Own Independence Movement”. Heel Good Music. 20 April, 2015. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Roland, Terry. “The Long, Lonesome Highway Of Hank Williams”. No Depression. 28 December, 2014. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- Spong, John. “All George Strait’s No. 1’s”. Texas Monthly. June 2014. Web. 18 November, 2016.
- “Waylon Jennings Lyrics.” A-Z Lyrics. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
- “Your Cheatin’ Heart by Hank Williams Songfacts.” Song Meanings at Songfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.