Hank Williams


Hank Williams (September 17, 1923January 1, 1953) was an American singer-songwriter and musician who has become an icon of country music and one of the most influential musicians and songwriters of the 20th century. A leading pioneer of the honky tonk style, he had numerous hit records, and his charismatic performances and succinct compositions increased his fame. His songbook is one of the backbones of country music, and several of his songs are pop standards as well. He has been covered in a range of pop, gospel, blues and rock styles. His death at the age of twenty-nine helped fuel his legend. His son (Randall) Hank Williams, Jr., nicknamed 'Bocephus', his daughter Jett Williams, and his grandchildren (Shelton) Hank Williams III, Holly Williams, and Hilary Williams are also professional singers.



Hiram King Williams was born in 1923, in the small unincorporated town of Mount Olive, about eight miles southwest of Georgiana, Alabama. He was named after Hiram I of Tyre, but his name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate. As a child he was nicknamed "Harm" by his family. He was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him life-long pain—a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. His parents were Elonzo H. Williams, (The H. was given to him in the military as he did not have a middle name,) known as "Lon," or "Lonnie", a train conductor for W.T. Smith lumber company and World War I veteran, and Jessie Lillybelle Williams, known as "Lillie." He had an older half sister (from his father's first marriage) named Irene. He also had a still-born brother, named Robin, and a half sister, Lyla Frances, from his father's last marriage who still resides in Selma, Alabama.

Early childhood

During his early childhood, the Williams family moved frequently throughout southern Alabama as his father's job required. In 1930, when Williams was seven years old, his father began suffering from face paralysis. At a Veterans Affairs clinic in Pensacola, Florida, doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, so they sent Elonzo Williams to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana. Lonnie remained hospitalized for eight years and was therefore mostly absent throughout Hank's childhood.

In 1931, Lillie Williams settled her family in Georgiana, Alabama, where she worked as the manager of a boarding house. She managed to find several side jobs to support her children, despite the bleak economic climate of the Great Depression. She worked in a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital. Hiram and Irene also helped out by selling peanuts, shining shoes, delivering newspapers, and doing other simple jobs. With the help of U.S. Representative J. Lister Hill, the family began collecting Lon's military disability pension. Despite Lon's medical condition, the Williams family managed fairly well financially throughout the Depression.

Preteen years

In 1933, Hank Williams moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his uncle and aunt, Walter and Alice McNell. Meanwhile, his cousin Opal McNell moved in with the Williams family in Georgiana to attend the high school there. In Fountain, ten-year-old Williams became close friends with his cousin J.C. McNell, who was six years older. There he learned some of the traits and habits that would dominate the rest of his life. His Aunt Alice taught him to play the guitar, and his cousin J.C. taught him to drink whiskey.

In the fall of 1934, the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, a larger town about fifteen miles to the north of Georgiana, where Lillie then opened a boarding house next to the Butler County courthouse. In 1937, Williams got into a rough fight with his physical-education coach. Furious with the coach, his mother demanded that the school board fire him. When the school board refused to take action, she decided to move the family to Montgomery.


Early career

In July, 1937, the Williams and McNell families opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery, a city much larger than any they had ever lived in. It was at this time that Hiram decided to informally change his name to Hank, a name which he said was better suited to his desired career in country music.

After school and on weekends, Hank sang and played his Silvertone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. He quickly caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to come inside and perform on air. So many listeners contacted the radio station asking for more of the "Singing Kid" that the producers hired him to host his own fifteen-minute show, twice a week for a weekly salary of fifteen dollars.

In August 1938, Lon Williams was temporarily released from the hospital, and he showed up unannounced at the family's home in Montgomery. Lillie was unwilling to let him reclaim his position at the head of the household, so he stayed only long enough to celebrate Hank's birthday in September before he returned to the medical center in Louisiana. It was the first time Hank had seen his father in over eight years, and even after the reunion, he felt as though he had grown up without a father.

Drifting Cowboys

Hank's successful radio show fueled his entrance to a music career. His generous salary was enough for him to start his own band, which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys. The original members of the band were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and comic Smith "Hezzy" Adair. Arthor Whiting was also a guitarist for The Drifting Cowboys. The Drifting Cowboys traveled throughout central and southern Alabama, performing in clubs and at private parties. Hank dropped out of school in October, 1939, so that the Drifting Cowboys could work full time.

Lillie Williams stepped up to be the Drifting Cowboys' manager. She began booking show dates, negotiating prices, and driving them to some of their shows. Now free to travel without Hank's school schedule taking precedence, the band was able to tour as far away as western Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle. Meanwhile, Hank returned to Montgomery every weekday to host his radio show.

The American entrance into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Hank Williams. All his band members were drafted to serve in the military, and many of their replacements refused to continue playing in the band because of Hank's worsening alcoholism. His idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying "You've got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain." Despite Acuff's advice, Williams continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated, so in August, 1942, WSFA fired him due to "habitual drunkenness."

Later career

Williams had eleven number-one hits in his short career — "Lovesick Blues", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues", "Cold, Cold Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive", "Kaw-Liga", "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Take These Chains From My Heart" — as well as many other top 10 hits.


In 1943, Williams met Audrey Shepard, and the couple was married a year later. Audrey also became his manager as Williams's career was rising and he became a local celebrity. In 1946, Williams recorded two singles for Sterling Records, "Never Again" (1946) and "Honky Tonkin'" (1947), both of which were successful. Williams soon signed with MGM Records, and released "Move It On Over", a massive country hit. In August 1948, Williams joined The Louisiana Hayride, broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana, propelling him into living rooms all over the southeast. After a few more moderate hits, Williams released his version of Rex Griffin's "Lovesick Blues" in 1949, which became a huge country hit and crossed over to mainstream audiences. That year, Williams sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. In addition, Hank brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys; also that year, Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.). 1949 also saw Williams release seven hit songs after "Lovesick Blues", including "Wedding Bells", "Mind Your Own Business", "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It".

Luke the Drifter

In 1950, Williams began recording as Luke the Drifter, an appellation given to Williams for use in identifying his more moralistic and religious-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than his usual crooning. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox operators would become hesitant to accept these non-traditional Williams recordings, thereby hurting the marketability of Williams' name, the name Luke the Drifter was employed to cloak the identity of the artist — though the source of the recordings was quite evident. Around this time, Williams released more hit songs, such as "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy", "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me", "Why Should We Try Anymore?", "Nobody's Lonesome for Me", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues" and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'". In 1951, "Dear John" became a hit but the B-side, "Cold, Cold Heart", has endured as one of his most famous songs, aided by the #1 pop version by Tony Bennett in 1951 being the first of many recordings of Williams's songs in a non-country genre. ("Cold, Cold Heart" has subsequently been covered by Guy Mitchell, Casino Steel, Teresa Brewer, Dinah Washington, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and Norah Jones, among others). That same year, Williams released other hits, including the enduring classic "Crazy Heart".

Despite Hank's numerous country hits, the legend of Hank Williams seems to rest in the duality of his writings. On one hand, Hank would sing about having a rowdy time ("Honky Tonkin'") or drifting aimlessly ("Lost Highway"), but would then sing religious songs of remorse, most particularly, the title track to the album "I Saw The Light."

Personal life

Hank Williams's marriage, always turbulent, was rapidly disintegrating, and he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine and other painkillers prescribed for him in an effort to ease his severe back pain caused by congenital spina bifida. Had Hank been born in a later era, the underlying cause of some of his pain may have been surgically treatable.

In 1952, Hank and Audrey separated and he moved in with his mother, even as he released numerous hit songs, such as "Half as Much", "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "Settin' the Woods on Fire", "You Win Again" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Williams's drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. A relationship with Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett, who would be born just after his death.

In October 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Told not to return until he was sober, he instead rejoined the Louisiana Hayride. On October 18, 1952, he married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar. A ceremony was held at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium and 14,000 people bought tickets to attend. Soon after, the Drifting Cowboys decided to part ways with Williams. Their departure was due to Hank drinking more than a show would pay.


On January 1, 1953, Williams was due to play in Canton, Ohio, but he was unable to fly due to weather problems. He hired a chauffeur and before leaving the old Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, injected himself with B12 and morphine. He then left in a Cadillac, though contrary to popular belief, he did not have a bottle of whiskey with him. He was trying to get his career back on track by proving to promoters that he could be sober and reliable. The only items found in the backseat of Hank's car were a few cans of beer and the hand-written lyrics to an unrecorded song.

When the seventeen year-old chauffeur Charles Carr pulled over at an all-night service station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, he discovered that Williams was unresponsive and becoming rigid. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that Hank Williams was dead. He was twenty-nine. Controversy has since surrounded Williams's death with some claiming Williams was dead before leaving Knoxville.

Williams's final single was ominously titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Five days after his death, his illegitimate daughter by Bobbie Jett (Jett Williams) was born. His widow, Billie Jean Jones, married country singer Johnny Horton in September of that year (1953).

Legacy and influence

His son Hank Williams, Jr., daughter Jett Williams, grandson Hank Williams III, and granddaughters Hilary Williams and Holly Williams are also country musicians.

Williams ranked #2 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003. His son, Hank, Jr., ranked #20 on that same list.

Hank Williams's remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery, Alabama. His funeral was said to have been far larger than any ever held for a citizen of Alabama and is still, as of 2005, the largest such event ever held in Montgomery. As of 2007, more than fifty years after Williams's death, members of his Drifting Cowboys continue to tour and bring his music to generations of fans.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him #74 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time The website "Acclaimedmusic" collates recommendations of albums and recording artists. There is a year-by-year recommendation for top artists. For the period 1940–1949, Hank Williams is ranked as number 1 for his song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry".

In February 2005 the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling stating that Hank Williams's heirs—son Hank Williams Jr. and daughter Jett Williams—have the sole rights to sell his old recordings made for a Nashville, Tennessee radio station in the early 1950s. The court rejected claims made by Polygram Records and Legacy Entertainment in releasing recordings Williams made for the Mother's Best Flour Show, a program that originally aired on WSM-AM. The recordings, which Legacy Entertainment acquired in 1997, include live versions of Williams's hits and his cover version of other songs. Polygram contended that Williams's contract with MGM Records, which Polygram now owns, gave them rights to release the radio recordings. Jett Williams stated on her website in August 2007 that the "Mother's Best" recordings should be released in 2008.


Year Award Awards Notes
1989 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration Grammy with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Music Video of the Year CMA with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Vocal Event of the Year CMA with Hank Williams, Jr.
1989 Video of the Year Academy of Country Music with Hank Williams, Jr.
1990 Vocal Collaboration of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams, Jr.
1990 Video of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams, Jr.
2003 Ranked #2 of the 40 Greatest Men of Country Music CMT

Music videos

Year Video Notes
1989 "There's A Tear In My Beer" with Hank Williams, Jr.
"Honky Tonk Blues"


Year A-side Chart* B-side Chart*
1947 "Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)" "Calling You"
1947 "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul" "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels"
1947 "My Love for You (Has Turned to Hate)" "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)"
1947 "Pan American" "Honky Tonkin'"
1947 "Move It On Over" 4 "I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep"
1947 "On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain" "Fly Trouble"
1948 "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" "Rootie Tootie"
1948 "Honky Tonkin'" 14 "I'll Be a Bachelor 'Til I Die"
1948 "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" 6 "The Blues Come Around"
1948 "I Saw the Light" "Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)"
1948 "A Mansion on the Hill" 12 "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind"
1949 "Lovesick Blues" 1 "Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)" 6
1949 "Wedding Bells" 5 "I've Just Told Mama Goodbye"
1949 "Mind Your Own Business" 5 "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight"
1949 "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)" 4 "Lost Highway" 12
1949 "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" 2 "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
1950 "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living" 5 "May You Never Be Alone"
1950 "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" 1 "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" 9
1950 "Why Don't You Love Me?" 1 "A House Without Love"
1950 "Why Should We Try Anymore?" 9 "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me" 5
1950 "Moanin' the Blues" 1 "Nobody's Lonesome for Me" 9
1951 "Cold, Cold Heart" 1 "Dear John" 8
1951 "Howlin' at the Moon" 3 "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" 2
1951 "Hey Good Lookin'" 1 "My Heart Would Know"
1951 "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle" 9 "Crazy Heart" 4
1951 "Baby, We're Really in Love" 4 "I'd Still Want You"
1952 "Honky Tonk Blues" 2 "I'm Sorry for You, My Friend"
1952 "Half as Much" 2 "Let's Turn Back the Years"
1952 "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" 1 "Window Shopping"
1952 "Settin' the Woods on Fire" 2 "You Win Again" 10
1952 "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" 1 "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You"
1953 "Kaw-Liga" 1 "Your Cheatin' Heart" 1
1953 "Take These Chains from My Heart" 1 "Ramblin' Man"
1953 "I Won't Be Home No More" 4 "My Love for You"
1953 "Weary Blues from Waitin'" 7 "I Can't Escape from You"
1955 "Please Don't Let Me Love You" 9 "Faded Love and Winter Roses"
1966 "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (re-release) 43 "You Win Again"
1976 "Why Don't You Love Me" (re-release) 61 "Ramblin' Man"
1989 "There's a Tear in My Beer" 7 (dubbed recording with Hank Williams, Jr.)


Songs which pay tribute to Hank Williams include:

Other songs include: "Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You", "Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers", "Tribute to Hank Williams", "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul", "Hank Williams Will Live Forever", "The Ghost of Hank Williams,"In Memory of Hank Williams", "Thanks Hank", "Hank's Home Town", "Good Old Boys Like Me" (Hank Williams and Tennessee Williams), , "Why Ain't I Half as Good as Old Hank (Since I'm Feeling All Dead Anyway)?", "The Last Letter" (Mississippi disc jockey Jimmy Swan's reading of a letter to Williams by M-G-M boss Frank Walker) and Charley Pride's album There's a Little Bit of Hank in Me. (Brackett 2000, p.219n22).

The play Hank Williams: Lost Highway is a tribute to Hank Williams. It is a recount of his life.

A tribute album called "Timeless" was released in 2001, featuring cover versions of Hank Williams' songs by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Hank Williams III, and others.

"Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" sung by George Jones refers to Hank Williams when he sings "You know the heart of country music still beats in Luke the Drifter, you can tell it when he sang 'I Saw the Light'." "Images of A Country Drifter" A complete tribute to Hank Williams in song and narration has been performed by singer/songwriter, David Church all over the US and Canada. David is also recognized for his uncanny ability to sound so much like "Hank" that the listener is astounded.

On the album Show Me Your Tears, Frank Black's song "Everything Is New" recounts the tragedy of both Hank Williams' sand Johnny Horton's deaths. The lyrics relevant are: "Hiram said to John have you met my wife? Someday she'll be yours when I lose my life. He lost it after playing the old Skyline. Seven years later, after that same gig, John took the wheel, but when he got to the bridge Billy Jean was alone for the second time." Billy Jean of course refers to Billie Jean Jones (Jones being her maiden name) who married both Hiram "Hank" Williams and, later, John "Johnny" Horton. Both men died in vehicles, and both played their last (separate) concerts at Austin, Texas's "the old Skyline" Club (as the song mentions).

FEAR, The seminal LA punk band also wrote a song about Hank; "Hank Williams was queer" which appeared on their Budweiser 7".


  • "A good song is a good song, and if I'm lucky enough to write it, well....! I get more kick out of writing than I do singing. I reckon I've written a thousand songs and had over 300 published." — Hank Williams
  • "When I wrote about Hank Williams 'A hundred floors above me in the tower of song', it's not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. 'Your Cheatin' Heart', songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer." — Leonard Cohen


  • Escott, Colin (1998). "Hank Williams". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Pres. pp. 589–90.
  • The Time-Life Country and Western Classics: Hank Williams, p.2. Quoted in Brackett, David (1995/2000). Interpreting Popular Music. ISBN 0-520-22541-4.

External links

Search another word or see WmsHnk-Hank-Hankon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature