Of the 33 records that Hank Williams placed on Billboard country and western Top 10 charts during his short lifetime, only two made the mainstream pop chart, and even those had much to do with pop artists like Tony Bennett having their own hits with them first. Yet, more than 60 years after his premature death at age 29, no country artist living or dead can approach the familiarity the general public has with Hank Williams, whose sad, lonely songs are playing right this minute on some roadhouse jukebox. Few musical legends live on as an almost touchable, feelable presence in the anatomy of modern popular music as does the enigmatic, goofy-looking guy who carried a nascent country music formula to its full potential, then exited stage right in total and abject loneliness.
Consider textural lyrics about robins weeping and leaves dying, the will to live lost, punctuated by the lament I’m so lonesome I could cry. Those are among the saddest words ever written and sung in music—Elvis once said so—and arguably the greatest. But the truth is, writing about music is never as effective as the act of simply listening to it. And when Hank Williams is listened to, something revelatory seems to happen. To make the point, a good prelude to reading these pages would be to find and listen to his first successful song, the 1947 12-bar blues rag “Move It On Over,” which spins a melody instantly recognizable as Bill Haley and His Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,” which birthed rock and roll to the masses a year after Williams died. (Haley had also ripped off “Cold, Cold Heart,” retitling his record “Icy Heart.”) Hank’s honky-tonk classic “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” is the derivation of Bruce Springsteen’s line about being “a long gone daddy in the U.S.A.” His guttural blues lament “Ramblin’ Man” (“I love you baby but you gotta understand, when the Lord made me he made a ramblin’ man”) foretold Dickey Betts’s tune that “swaggers along in the grand tradition of Hank Williams.” Hank even sang about purple skies long before Prince was born. Keith Richards says “Honky Tonk Women” was written as a “Hank—Jimmie Rodgers sort of number.” The first popular reference to a “rolling stone” was heard in Hank’s 1949 cover of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway.” And, obscure as it is, on an early demo record, covering Lonnie Glossom’s “Rockin’ Chair Money,” he sang, “And now I’ll rock, yeah, rock, oh baby, rock, rock on down the line.” That was in 1948.
Among the country set, there have always been similar assumptions about the broad outlines of his work. For example, Wesley Rose, the son of Hank’s publisher and producer Fred Rose, the hidden hand behind the magic of those songs, once said that had Hank lived, “I don’t think we could have had a rock era,” his point being that rock and roll was a cheap replacement for Hank’s music rather than a logical extension of roots that included it. But then, the same people used to say Elvis wasn’t welcome in Nashville unless he stopped with that wriggling, jiggling rock and roll stuff.
Even so, it was hard to deify him during his lifetime, so proudly unrefined was he. His songs, culled at times from the pages of comic books, celebrated simple human concepts—God, beer, a good woman, and a blessed break from loneliness. Yet to some, even then, he was the voice of not only a more liberal South but also “the common people,” another way of saying white trash. That quality still resonates in his music, explaining why in a cultural maw he never could have foreseen, there have been two Pepsi Super Bowl commercials built around “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and that his music bleeds far beyond its strictest borders, the reason why Williams owns a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for lifetime achievement. The only other posthumous Pulitzers for music have been awarded to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Scott Joplin. Yet none of the others ever sold a record as far and wide as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” which has been played over three million times on the radio and jukeboxes, or 17.1 years if continuously played, the same level as “My Way” and “Love Me Tender.”
As with Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Cowboy Copas, and the legendary rock and roll victims of lousy planes or their own vices, Williams’s premature death, in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac on New Year’s Day 1953, romances his flaws and elevates his mythology, the loneliness of it lending believability to his litany of sad, sad songs. Dying as he did, he set the trend for the later rock and roll shooting stars who never made 30, a sort of post-teen angel with never-resolved issues but a beyond-cool epitaph. As the country singer Jason Aldean, whose 2010 album My Kinda Party was a massive crossover success, warbles on its title track:
You can find me in the back of a jacked up tailgateChillin’ with some Skynyrd and some old Hank.
He has been sung and written about like this, as “Old Hank,” without pause, a wraith for southern men old enough to remember him stamping their own youth. One of those was the Alabama-born journalist Paul Hemphill, who wrote the superb 1970 book The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. He authored a book late in his life called Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, prefiguring his own times on the lonely byways of the South, a bond created when as a teenager he sat in his daddy’s truck in 1949, hearing Williams’s “nasal wail,” which sounded “like a hurt animal.”
They were the loneliest sounds we had ever heard... cries from the darkness; made to be heard, it seemed to us, while running through the lonely night, racing with the moon, the wind whistling through the cab, gliding past See Rock City barns and Burma Shave signs and spooky pastures milling with dumbstruck cows. With the whining of the tires keeping time, we laughed at each other’s attempts to emulate Hank’s yodel.
That is really the thematic outline of Williams’s near-subconscious grip on culture: his music—centrally, what Loretta Lynn calls the “throb” in it—and his persona are markers of a time long gone, and so stripped of modern glamour and convenience that his own failings, like his successes, cut right to the bone. At times, we wish we could crawl inside those songs and ride them like an old truck through time, and that is essentially what this book does, race with the moon through history, and tell not just the story but the backstory of uniquely American circumstances and influences bred by other pioneers of country. Williams’s tortured soul and his drug and booze addictions were the result of weakness and recklessness, but on a grander scale wrote the script for the “live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse” ethos of the modern rock and roll movement. Not that some haven’t drawn a line at such a seduction. In “Hank Williams Syndrome,” a broken-down Waylon Jennings, one of the primal country “outlaws,” sings of Hank as his inspiration, less a singing model than an “obsession.”
But to tell you the truth, it’s no thanks to you that I’m still living today.
In truth, to be sure, Hank himself was a poor excuse for a rebel. What separated him from moral reproof was that he carried on his ruinous lifestyle in pain, not pride; cautionary tales lurked beneath the grooves of his music. True enough, as Hank himself pointed out, was that his songs explained who he was. The best ones are a catalog of unrelenting agony and the hopelessness he sold—“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” “Lost Highway,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Take These Chains from My Heart,” “Alone and Forsaken,” “I’m Blue Inside,” “Moanin’ the Blues.” (Often forgotten is that “Lovesick Blues” and “Lost Highway” were not written by Williams.) But he also wrote of finding a way through the dark clouds and landing, if even for a few minutes, in a glen of relieved burdens, like the toe-tapping reverie of “Jambalaya,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light,” “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).”
It’s telling that, because these songs hit home so squarely, no one knew him as Mr. Williams; he was just plain Hank. Sometimes, Williams recorded under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter, an alter ego with which to preach morality tales and semi-rapped “talking blues” records like “Ramblin’ Man.” But by any other name, he was just plain Hank. For a guy who was such a good time, though, Hank was, let’s face it, seriously disturbed. He was a dysfunction junction. When sober, he could be kind and humble; when drunk, “a mean, moody, raving egomaniac.” He humiliated his two-time wife and hinge-voiced singing partner, the tempestuous temptress “Miss Audrey” Williams, and shot either at her or over her head while in a haze once—and according to lore later remarked that because he missed, “Well, I’ll just have to go back and kill her.” He didn’t, but their marriage was still a battle zone during which she nearly died from a coat-hanger abortion; after his death she took control of his estate, managed the career of their son, Hank Jr., formed a singing group called the Cold Cold Hearts, was a raging alcoholic and pill-popper herself, attempted suicide, was arrested for drunk driving, and lived with the guilt of feeling that she had caused Hank’s drinking and early demise. A day before the IRS was to raid her home in 1975, she died young and addicted herself, at 53.
Williams was indeed the original ramblin’ man, tryin’ to make a livin’, doin’ the best he could. Which only happened when he wrote a song. Today, his catalog attests to the raw power of a good country song, of a good song, period. The connection between his “folk” and rock is clear, given that in what the British music writer Nik Cohn calls “the twisted roots of rock and roll” both idioms sprang from the same blues root—which was why it was so absurd that country became synonymous with white power. For his part, Hank made a point to credit blues man Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne for teaching him blues guitar as a kid. Bob Dylan, who became transfixed by him as a prepubescent in Hibbing, Minnesota, says Hank’s songs carved “the archetype rules of poetic songwriting.” This was a key element common to the country “rebels” spawned by Williams, like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, who brought country firmly into the rock family.
Remember that there was no such creature called “country music” for around two decades of its existence, and certainly in no way anything like the “mass cult” it became, to borrow a phrase from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. It was by default called “hillbilly” music. Even the more charitable terms applied to Hank—“the Hillbilly Shakespeare,” “the Hillbilly Hammerstein,” “Irving Berlin of the straw sack,” “Sinatra of the hillbilly set,” “Sinatra of the Western ballad”—were hollow. As rock’s most sage critic, Greil Marcus, notes, Elvis, too, was pegged as “the Hillbilly Cat.” This was probably why Hank himself called his idiom “folk music,” though it must have occurred to him that he was, as Garrison Keillor once said, “the first really sexy hillbilly.” By any other name, he created what one music scholar calls a “unique vocal vocabulary,” even if by accident. He could neither read nor write music. He once said he knew two melodies—fast and slow. His voice was technically all wrong. Another musical academic wrote that, “measured against any conventional criteria either of songwriting or of singing, Hank’s appeal makes no sense.” Except when he was actually singing. Then he transcended his small, mortal self. Nor was he much of a guitar player, playing only one solo in his career, and some songs were inscrutable.
Music, Greil Marcus writes, was the South’s great shelter and unifier, bringing under its collective roof even society’s rejects—“tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals.” The singers who rose highest “could take the community beyond itself because they had the chops and the nerve to transcend it,” though often they were “doomed… too ambitious, too ornery, or simply different to fit in.”
For Hank, there would be a price to pay for that: his life. His children and grandchildren would carry that same gene. All of them sing country, most notably Randall Hank Williams, who’s been doing business as “Hank Williams Jr.” since he was in puberty in the 1950s, later finding immense popularity as a beer-bellied, bearded doppelganger of the father he barely knew. Randall earned a fortune and a brace of awards from his rowdy drinking songs, like his best-known rag, his “Are You Ready for Some Football” that opened Monday Night Football for years. However, he was possessed of the same tendencies to screw up; his fulminations in 2012 about Barack Obama being a “Hitler” and a “Muslim President who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S.” cost him the football gig and reduced him to an aging warhorse in his late sixties, covered in a ten-gallon hat and goggle glasses.
Hank Jr. symbolized an anti-intellectual country genre his daddy never did, one that is happily crumbling these days. Where country once grinned smugly as Merle Haggard crooned, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” it must have felt swept by a raging tide when, in 2014, 25-year-old Kacey Musgraves won the Grammy for Best Country Song with “Follow Your Arrow,” a sly metaphor of gay acceptance that urged, “When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, roll up a joint” and follow that arrow “wherever it points,” whether it be to “kiss lots of boys or kiss lots of girls.” This so unnerved some country allies that a Colorado pastor who advocates death for gay people lamented, wistfully, “If she had sang that thing in a country bar in the 1920s... somebody would’ve called for a rope.” But even during those bygone days, Hank Williams pere had more common sense than the country establishment and its lunatic right-wing retainers had, never allowing himself to be the stereotype of a doltish redneck buffoon; his notion of rebelliousness was to unburden what he felt within about himself, not to give ignorance and bigotry a free ride.
Although he recorded only two studio albums, both going to No. 1 on the country charts in the early ’50s when the long-form disk came into vogue, at last count 45 posthumous studio, live, and compilation albums have been issued. Of these, 16 have made the country charts, some with layers of strings overdubbed, as on the 1966 MGM The Legend Lives Anew—Hank Williams with Strings, fairly ruining their intent. Thirty singles have appeared as well, only one fewer than when he was alive. In all, 26 singles of his have made the Top 10 of the country chart; the year that he died, four straight went to No. 1.
As a result, he is in the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, the latter as an “early influence” and an “American Master.” He has won two Grammys—an award born seven years after he died—and his songs have been and continue to be covered by, well, everyone, with tribute albums by Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Don Gibson, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Hawkins, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison—and, of course, Hank Williams Jr. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, an all-star tribute album that included Bob Dylan—whose vanity Egyptian label teamed with Columbia to issue it—Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, Levon Helm, Vince Gill, and Norah Jones, went to No. 11 on the country chart, Top 50 on the Billboard 200 in 2011. Four movies have been made about him. There was also one Drama Desk—nominated Off-Broadway musical called Hank Williams: Lost Highway in 2002, produced by the Manhattan Ensemble Theater, which still plays around the country.
As another redoubtably wise acolyte, Willie Nelson, once said he learned from Hank, “If a song is true for you, it will be true for others.” That category now numbers in the millions. And if only Ol’ Hank knew what he was feeling, what a song meant, where it came from, the clues can be found sprinkled all over the South, the most trenchant ones in sweet home Alabama. That is where this story can only begin, and never stray much from, in the sunbaked soil of hopelessness.
Excerpted from Hank: The Short Life and long Country Road of Hank Williams by Mark Ribowsky. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Ribowsky. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Mark Ribowsky is the author of 15 books, including Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations, the New York Times Notable Book Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball, and, most recently, Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul. He lives in Florida.