Hank Williams
Hank Williams Promotional Photo.jpg
Williams in 1951
Hiram Williams

(1923-09-17)September 17, 1923
DiedJanuary 1, 1953(1953-01-01) (aged 29)
Resting placeOakwood Annex Cemetery
Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.
32°23′05″N 86°17′29″W / 32.3847°N 86.2913°W / 32.3847; -86.2913
Other names
  • The Singing Kid
  • Lovesick Blues Boy
  • Luke the Drifter
  • The Hillbilly Shakespeare
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • musician
Years active1937–1952
(m. 1944; div. 1952)
(m. 1952)
Musical career
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • fiddle
Hank Williams signature.png

Hiram "Hank" Williams (September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. He is regarded as one of the most significant and influential American singers and songwriters of the 20th century. Williams recorded 55 singles that reached the top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, five of which were released posthumously, including 12 that reached No. 1, three of which were released after his death.

Born and raised in Alabama, Williams learned guitar from African-American blues musician Rufus Payne in exchange for meals or money. Payne and Roy Acuff had a significant influence on Williams' musical style. Williams began his professional career in Montgomery in 1937 when local radio station WSFA hired him to perform on a 15-minute program. He formed the Drifting Cowboys backup band, which was managed by his mother, and dropped out of school to devote his time to his career. When several of his band members were drafted during World War II, he had trouble with their replacements, and WSFA terminated his contract because of his alcoholism.

Williams married Audrey Sheppard, who managed him for nearly a decade. After recording "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'" with Sterling Records, he signed a contract with MGM Records. In 1947, he released the hit single "Move It On Over" and joined the Louisiana Hayride radio program. One year later, he released a cover of "Lovesick Blues" which quickly reached number one on Billboard's Top Country & Western singles chart and propelled him to stardom on the Grand Ole Opry. Although unable to read or notate music to any significant degree, he wrote such iconic hits as "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Hey, Good Lookin'", and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". In 1952, Sheppard divorced him and he married Billie Jean Horton. He was dismissed by the Grand Ole Opry because of his unreliability and alcoholism.

Years of back pain, alcoholism, and prescription drug abuse severely compromised Williams' health, and at the age of 29, Williams suffered from heart failure and died suddenly in the back seat of a car near Oak Hill, West Virginia en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year's Day 1953. Despite his relatively brief career, he is one of the most celebrated and influential musicians of the 20th century, especially in country music. Many artists have covered his songs and he has influenced Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, among others. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame in 1999, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2010 he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation 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."

Early life

Williams' family house in Georgiana, Alabama
Williams' family house in Georgiana, Alabama

Hank Williams was born Hiram Williams on September 17, 1923, in the rural community of Mount Olive in Butler County, Alabama.[1] He was the third child of Jessie Lillybelle "Lillie" (née Skipper) (1898–1955) and Elonzo Huble "Lon" Williams (1891–1970).[2] Elonzo's family came from south and central Alabama,[3] and his father fought during the American Civil War, first on the Confederate side, and then with the Union after he was captured.[4] Elonzo was a railroad engineer for the W. T. Smith lumber company and was drafted during World War I, serving from July 1918 to June 1919. He suffered severe injuries after falling from a truck, breaking his collarbone, and receiving a severe blow to the head.[2]

The Williams' first child, Ernest Huble Williams, died two days after his birth on July 5, 1921. A daughter, Irene, was born a year later. Williams was named after Hiram I of the Book of Kings.[5] His name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate, which was prepared and signed when he was 10 years old.[6] Williams was born with spina bifida occulta, a birth defect of the spinal column that caused him lifelong pain and became a major factor in his later alcohol and drug abuse.[7] At the age of three, Williams sat with his mother as she played the organ at the Mount Olive Baptist Church. Lillie also joined singing the hymns that influenced the singer's later compositions. Williams received his first instrument, an harmonica, at the age of six.[8] As a child, he was nicknamed "Harm" by his family and "Herky" or "Skeets" by his friends.[9]

Williams' father frequently relocated for work, and as a result the family lived in several southern Alabama towns. In 1930, when Williams was seven years old, Elonzo began experiencing facial paralysis. After being evaluated at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Pensacola, Florida, doctors determined that he had a brain aneurysm, and Elonzo was sent to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana.[10] He remained hospitalized for eight years and was mostly absent throughout Williams' childhood. From that point on, Lillie assumed responsibility for the family.[11]

In the fall of 1933, Williams was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Walter and Alice McNeil, in Fountain, Alabama. Their daughter, Opal, went in exchange to live with Lillie to attend school in Georgiana. Williams learned to play basic guitar chords from his aunt and listened to music that was played at dances and in area churches.[12] The following year, the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, where Lillie opened a boarding house next to the cotton gin.[13] The family later returned with Opal McNeil to Georgiana, Alabama, where Lillie took several side jobs to support the family 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. Their first house burned down, and the family lost their possessions. They moved to Rose Street on the other side of town, into a house which Williams' mother soon turned into another boarding house. The house had a small garden in which they grew diverse crops that Williams and his sister Irene sold around Georgiana.[14] At a chance meeting in Georgiana, Williams' sister Irene met U.S. Representative J. Lister Hill while Hill was campaigning across Alabama. She told Hill that her mother was interested in talking to him about her problems. With Hill's help, the family began collecting Elonzo's disability pension.[15] Despite his medical condition, the family managed fairly well financially throughout the Great Depression.[16]

There are several versions of how Williams got his first guitar. While several prominent Georgiana residents claimed to have bought it for him, his mother said she bought it with money from selling peanuts, which Williams confirmed in an interview. Williams followed Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, a street performer who gave Williams guitar lessons in exchange for money or meals prepared by Lillie.[17] Payne's basic musical style was blues; he repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining good rhythm and time,[18] and he also added stoops, bows, laughs and cries.[19] Later on, Williams recorded "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It", one of the songs Payne taught him.[20] Williams was also influenced by other country acts, most notably by Roy Acuff.[21] In 1937, Williams got into a fight with his physical education teacher about exercises the coach wanted him to do. His mother subsequently demanded that the school board terminate the coach; when they refused, the family moved to Montgomery, Alabama.[22] Payne and Williams lost touch, though Payne also eventually moved to Montgomery, where he died in poverty in 1939.[23] Williams later credited him as his only teacher.[24]



Williams performing in Montgomery in 1938
Williams performing in Montgomery in 1938

In July 1937, the Williams and McNeils opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery. It was at this time that Williams decided to change his name informally from Hiram to Hank.[25] During the same year, he participated in a talent show at the Empire Theater and won the first prize of $15 singing his first original song "WPA Blues". Williams wrote the lyrics and used the tune of Riley Puckett's "Dissatisfied".[26]

He never learned to read music; instead he based his compositions in storytelling and personal experience.[24] After school and on weekends, Williams sang and played his Silvertone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studio.[27] His recent win at the Empire Theater and the street performances caught the attention of WSFA producers who occasionally invited him to perform on air.[28] So many listeners, possibly influenced by his mother, contacted the radio station asking for more of "the singing kid", that the producers hired him to host his own 15-minute show twice a week for a weekly salary of US$15 (equivalent to $300 in 2021).[29]

In August 1938, Elonzo Williams was temporarily released from the hospital. He showed up unannounced at the family's home in Montgomery. Lillie was unwilling to let him reclaim his position as the head of the household. Elonzo stayed to celebrate his son's birthday in September before he returned to the medical center in Louisiana.[30]

Williams' successful radio show fueled his entry into a music career, and he started his own band for show dates, the Drifting Cowboys. The original members were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and comedian Smith "Hezzy" Adair.[31] Originally billed as "Hank and Hezzy and the Drifting Cowboys", they frequently appeared as fill-ins at the local dancehall, Thigpen's Log Cabin, just out of Georgiana.[32] The band traveled throughout central and southern Alabama performing in clubs and at private gatherings. James Ellis Garner later played fiddle for him. Lillie Williams became the Drifting Cowboys' manager. Williams dropped out of school in October 1939 so that he and the Drifting Cowboys could work full-time. Lillie Williams began booking show dates, negotiating prices and driving them to some of their shows.[33] Now free to travel without deference to Williams' schooling, the band could tour as far away as western Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.[34] The band started playing in theaters before the screening of films and later they played in honky-tonks. Williams' alcohol use started to become a problem during the tours; on occasion he spent a large part of the show revenues on alcohol. Meanwhile, between tour schedules, Williams returned to Montgomery to host his radio show.[35]


Williams, Sheppard, and the Drifting Cowboys band in 1951
Williams, Sheppard, and the Drifting Cowboys band in 1951

The American entry into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Williams. While he was medically disqualified from military service after suffering a back injury caused by falling from a bull during a rodeo in Texas, his band members were all drafted to serve. Many of their replacements quit the band due to Williams' worsening alcoholism, and in August 1942 WSFA fired him for "habitual drunkenness". Backstage during one of his concerts, Williams met Roy Acuff, who warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying, "You've got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain."[36]

For about a year and a half during the war he worked off and on for a shipbuilding company in Mobile, Alabama, including two months at a shipyard in Oregon.[37] In 1943, Williams met Audrey Sheppard at a medicine show in Banks, Alabama. Williams and Sheppard lived and worked together in Mobile.[38] Sheppard later told Williams that she wanted to help him regain his radio show, and that they should move to Montgomery and start a band. The couple were married in 1944 at a Texaco gas station in Andalusia, Alabama, by a justice of the peace. The marriage was technically invalid, since Sheppard's divorce from her previous husband did not comply with the legally required 60-day trial reconciliation.[39]

In 1945, back in Montgomery, Williams returned to WSFA radio. He attempted to expand his repertoire by writing original songs[40], and he published his first songbook, Original Songs of Hank Williams, containing nine original songs:[41] "Grandad's Musket," "Six More Miles," "I'm Not Coming Homne anymore," "Mother Is Gone," "Won't You Please Come Back", "I Am Praying For The Day That Peace Will come," "Honkey-Tonkey," "You'll Love Me Again," "Take Away those Lonely Memories," and one not written by him, "A Tramp on the Street."[42] With Williams beginning to be recognized as a songwriter,[43] Sheppard became his manager and occasionally accompanied him on duets in some of his live concerts.[44]

On September 14, 1946, Williams auditioned for Nashville's Grand Ole Opry by the recommendation of Ernest Tubb, but was rejected. After the failure of his audition, Williams and Audrey Sheppard attempted to interest the recently formed music publishing firm Acuff-Rose Music. Williams and his wife approached Fred Rose, the president of the company, during one of his habitual ping-pong games at WSM radio studios. Audrey Williams asked Rose if her husband could sing a song for him at that moment, Rose agreed, and he liked Williams' musical style.[45] Rose signed Williams to a six-song contract, and leveraged this deal to sign Williams with Sterling Records. On December 11, 1946, in his first recording session, he recorded "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul", "Calling You", "Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)", and "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels", which was misprinted as "When God Comes and Fathers His Jewels".[46] The Sterling releases of Williams' songs became successful, and Rose decided to look for a larger label for future releases. The producer then approached the newly formed recording division of the Loews Corporation, MGM Records.[47]

Williams signed with MGM Records in 1947 and released "Move It on Over"; now considered an early example of rock and roll music,[48] the song became a country hit.[49] In 1948, he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and joined the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast that propelled him into living rooms all over the Southeast appearing on weekend shows. Williams eventually started to host a show on KWKH and began touring across western Louisiana and eastern Texas, always returning on Saturdays for the weekly broadcast of the Hayride.[50] After a few more moderate hits, in 1949 he released his version of the 1922 Cliff Friend and Irving Mills song "Lovesick Blues", made popular by Rex Griffin.[51] Williams' version was a hit; the song stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for four consecutive months.[52] Following the success of the releases of "Lovesick Blues" and "Wedding Bells", Williams signed a management contract with Oscar Davis. Davis then booked the singer on a Grand Ole Opry package show, and he later negotiated Williams' induction to the musical troupe.[53]

On June 11, 1949, Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores.[54] He 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.[55] That year Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams Jr.).[56] During 1949, he joined the Grand Ole Opry's first European tour, performing in military bases in Germany and Austria.[57] Williams released six hit songs after "Lovesick Blues" and "Wedding Bells", including "Mind Your Own Business", "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)", and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It".[58]


By 1950, Williams earned an estimated $1,000 per show.(equivalent to $11,300 in 2021)[59] That year, he began recording as "Luke the Drifter" for his moral-themed songs, many of which are recitations rather than singing. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox operators would hesitate to accept these unusual recordings, Williams used this alias to avoid hurting the marketability of his name.[60] Although the real identity of Luke the Drifter was supposed to be unknown, Williams often performed part of the recorded material on stage. Most of the material was written by Williams himself, in some cases with the help of Fred Rose and his son Wesley.[61] The songs depicted Luke the Drifter traveling around from place to place, narrating stories of different characters and philosophizing about life.[62][63] Some of the compositions were accompanied by a pipe organ.[64]

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 Living".[65] In 1951, "Dear John" became a hit, but it was the flip side, "Cold, Cold Heart", that became one of his most recognized songs.[66] A pop cover version by Tony Bennett released the same year stayed on the charts for 27 weeks, peaking at number one.[67]

Williams' career reached a peak in the late summer of 1951 with his Hadacol tour of the U.S. with Bob Hope and other actors. On the weekend after the tour ended, Williams was photographed backstage at the Grand Ole Opry signing a motion picture deal with MGM.[68] In October, Williams recorded a demo, "There's a Tear in My Beer" for a friend, "Big Bill Lister", who recorded it in the studio.[69] The following month, MGM Records released Williams' debut album, Hank Williams Sings. On November 14, 1951, Williams flew to New York with his steel guitar player Don Helms where he appeared on television for the first time on Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall. There he sang "Hey Good Lookin'", and the next week Como opened the show singing the same song, with apologies to Williams.[70]

On May 21, 1951, Williams was admitted to North Louisiana Sanitarium for the treatment of his alcoholism, leaving on May 24.[71] In November of the same year, he fell during a hunting trip with his fiddler Jerry Rivers in Franklin, Tennessee. The fall reactivated his old back pains, and he began to consume painkillers including morphine and alcohol to help ease the pain.[72] On December 13, 1951, he had a spinal fusion at the Vanderbilt University Hospital, being released on December 24.[73]

Williams performing in 1951
Williams performing in 1951

During the spring of 1952, Williams flew to New York with steel guitarist Don Helms, where he made two appearances with other Grand Ole Opry members on The Kate Smith Evening Hour. He sang "Cold, Cold Heart", "Hey Good Lookin''", "Glory Bound Train" and "I Saw the Light" with other cast members, and a duet, "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" with Anita Carter.[74] That same year, Williams had a brief extramarital affair with dancer Bobbie Jett, with whom he fathered a daughter, Jett Williams.[75]

In June 1952, he recorded "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)", "Window Shopping", "Settin' the Woods on Fire", and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". Audrey Williams divorced him that year; the next day he recorded "You Win Again" and "I Won't Be Home No More".[76] Around this time, he met Billie Jean Jones, a girlfriend of country singer Faron Young, at the Grand Ole Opry. As a girl, Jones had lived down the street from Williams when he was with the Louisiana Hayride, and now Williams began to visit her frequently in Shreveport, causing him to miss many Grand Ole Opry appearances.[77]

On August 11, 1952, Williams was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry for habitual drunkenness and missing shows. He returned to Shreveport to perform on KWKH and WBAM shows and in the Louisiana Hayride, for which he toured again. His performances were acclaimed when he was sober, but despite the efforts of his work associates to get him to shows sober, his abuse of alcohol resulted in occasions when he did not appear or his performances were poor.[78] In October 1952 he married Billie Jean Jones.[79]

During his last recording session on September 23, 1952, Williams recorded "Kaw-Liga", along with "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Take These Chains from My Heart", and "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You". By the end of 1952, Williams started to have heart problems.[80] He met Horace "Toby" Marshall in Oklahoma City, who said that he was a doctor. Marshall had been previously convicted for forgery, and had been paroled and released from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1951. Among other fake titles, he said that he was a Doctor of Science. He purchased the DSC title for $25 from the Chicago School of Applied Science; in the diploma, he requested that the DSc be spelled out as "Doctor of Science and Psychology". Under the name of Dr. C. W. Lemon he prescribed Williams with amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate, and morphine, which made his heart problems worse.[81] The final concert of his 1952 tour was held in Austin, Texas, at the Skyline Club on December 19.[82] Williams' last known public performance took place in Montgomery, on December 21, where he sang at a benefit held by the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians for a radio announcer that suffered of polio.[83][84]

Personal life

Williams and his first wife Audrey Sheppard in a publicity photo for MGM Records, c. 1952
Williams and his first wife Audrey Sheppard in a publicity photo for MGM Records, c. 1952

On December 15, 1944, Williams married Audrey Sheppard. It was her second marriage and his first.[85] Their son, Randall Hank Williams (now known as Hank Williams Jr.), was born on May 26, 1949.[86] The marriage was always turbulent and rapidly disintegrated,[87] and Williams developed serious problems with alcohol, morphine, and other painkillers prescribed for him to ease the severe back pain caused by his spina bifida occulta.[88] The couple divorced on May 29, 1952.[89]

In June 1952, Williams moved to a house on the Nashville section of the Natchez Trace, which he shared with singer Ray Price.[90] Price left soon after due to Williams' alcoholism.[91] Following an unsuccessful tour of California and several stints in a sanitorium, Williams moved to his mother's boardinghouse by September.[92] A relationship with a woman named Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett Williams, who was born five days after Williams died. His mother adopted Jett, who became a ward of the state after her grandmother's death. She was adopted and raised by an unrelated couple and did not learn that she was Williams' daughter until the early 1980s.[93] On October 18, 1952, Williams and Billie Jean Jones were married by a justice of the peace in Minden, Louisiana. The next day, two public ceremonies were held at the New Orleans Civic Auditorium, where 14,000 seats were sold for each.[94] After Williams' death, a judge ruled that the wedding was not legal because Jones' divorce had not become final until 11 days after she married Williams. His first wife and his mother were the driving forces behind having the marriage declared invalid, and they pursued the matter for years.[95]

A man named Lewis Fitzgerald (born 1943) claimed to be Williams' illegitimate son; he was the son of Marie McNeil, Williams' cousin. Fitzgerald was interviewed, and he suggested that Lillie Williams operated a brothel at her boarding house in Montgomery. A friend of the family denied his claims, but singer Billy Walker remembered that Williams mentioned to him the presence of men in the house who were led upstairs.[96]


Main article: Death of Hank Williams

Williams was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia, on December 31, 1952. Advance ticket sales totaled $3,000.[97] That day, Williams could not fly because of a snow storm in the Montgomery area; he hired a college student, Charles Carr, to drive him to the concerts.[98] On December 30, Williams and Carr stopped at the Redmont Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. The following morning, they continued to Fort Payne, and then to Knoxville, Tennessee. Williams and his driver then took a flight to Charleston, but the plane returned to Knoxville due to bad weather.[99] Back in Knoxville, the two arrived at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, and Carr requested a doctor for Williams, who was affected by the combination of the chloral hydrate and alcohol he had consumed on the way to Knoxville.[100] Dr. P. H. Cardwell injected Williams with two shots of vitamin B12 that also contained a quarter-grain of morphine. Carr and Williams checked out of the hotel, but the porters had to carry Williams to the car as he was coughing and hiccupping.[101] Carr spoke with Toby Marshall on the phone, who informed him on behalf of the tour's promoter, A.V. Bamford, that the show in Charleston was cancelled and he ordered him instead to drive Williams to Canton, Ohio, for a New Year's Day concert there.[102]

Entrance marker of the Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama
Entrance marker of the Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama

At around midnight on January 1, 1953, when the two crossed the Tennessee state line and arrived in Bristol, Virginia. Carr stopped at a small all-night restaurant and he asked for a relief driver from a local taxi company, as he felt exhausted after driving for 20 hours. Driver Don Surface left the restaurant with Carr and Williams. They drove on until they stopped for fuel and coffee at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where they realized that Williams had been dead for so long that rigor mortis had already set in. The station's owner called the local police chief.[103] Dr. Ivan Malinin performed the autopsy at the Tyree Funeral House.[104] He found hemorrhages in the heart and neck and pronounced the cause of death as "acute rt. ventricular dilation".[105] He also wrote that Williams had been severely beaten and kicked in the groin recently (during a fight in a Montgomery bar a few days earlier), and local magistrate Virgil F. Lyons ordered an inquest into Williams' death concerning a welt that was visible on his head.[104] That evening in Canton, when Williams' death was announced to the gathered crowd, they started laughing because they thought it was just another excuse. After Hawkshaw Hawkins and other performers started singing Williams' song "I Saw the Light" as a tribute to him, the crowd realized that he was indeed dead and began to sing along.[106]

On January 2, Williams' body was transported to Montgomery, Alabama, where it was placed in a silver casket that was displayed at his mother's boarding house for two days. His funeral took place on January 4 at the Montgomery Auditorium, with his casket placed on the flower-covered stage. An estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people passed by the silver casket, and the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners.[107] Backed by the Drifting Cowboys Acuff, Tubb and Red Foley performed "I Saw the Light", "Beyond the Sunset" and "Peace in the Valley".[108] His funeral was said to have been the largest gathering held in Montgomery, surpassing the inauguration of Jefferson Davis.[109] Williams' remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery.[110]

In late January 1953, MGM Records told Billboard magazine that the label had to reduce their planned releases for the month from 12 records to 6 to satisfy the demand for Williams' music. The label estimated that the amount of back orders of his records, and those by other artists would cover the production of their Bloomfield, New Jersey pressing plant until April 1953. Meanwhile, MGM Records received 3,000 direct requests for pictures of the singer, that combined with the requests from the distributors made the company outsource their printing and shipment. According to Acuff-Rose Music, the sales from the two Williams song folios jumped from their average of 700 per week to 5,000 in three weeks.[111] Williams' final single, released in November 1952 while he was still alive, was titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive". His song "Your Cheatin' Heart" was written and recorded in September 1952, but released in late January 1953 after his death. The song, backed by "Kaw-Liga", was No. 1 on the country charts for six weeks. "Take These Chains From My Heart" was released in April 1953 and reached No. 1 on the country charts.[112][113] Released in July, "I Won't Be Home No More" went to No. 4. Meanwhile, "Weary Blues From Waitin'" reached No. 7.[114]


Hank Williams's star at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Hank Williams's star at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

The Country Music Hall of Fame stressed that Williams "set the agenda for contemporary country songcraft" and the "standard by which success is measured in country music".[115] Encyclopædia Britannica considered him "country music's first superstar" and an "immensely talented songwriter and an impassioned vocalist".[116] The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame praised the "straightforward approach" of Williams' songs, which they deemed "brutally honest" and written in the "language of the everyman".[117] To AllMusic, Williams "established the rules for all the country performers who followed him and, in the process, much of popular music".[118]

Alabama governor Gordon Persons officially proclaimed September 21 "Hank Williams Day". The first celebration, in 1954, featured the unveiling of a monument at the Cramton Bowl that was later placed at the gravesite of Williams. The ceremony featured Ferlin Husky interpreting "I Saw the Light".[119] Williams had 11 number one country hits in his 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", and "Take These Chains from My Heart"), as well as many other top 10 hits.[120]

Many artists of the 1950s and 1960s, including Elvis Presley,[121] the Beatles,[122] Bob Dylan,[123] George Jones,[124] Tammy Wynette,[125] David Houston, Jerry Lee Lewis,[126] Merle Haggard,[127] Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Ricky Nelson, and Conway Twitty[128] recorded Williams' songs during their careers.

When Downbeat magazine took a poll the year after Williams' death, he was voted the most popular country and Western performer of all time.[129] On February 8, 1960, Williams' star was placed at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[130] He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, and into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985.[115][131]

In 1964, the biographical film Your Cheatin' Heart starring George Hamilton as Williams was released.[132] In 1977, a national organization of CB truck drivers voted "Your Cheatin' Heart" as their favorite record of all time.[133] In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the category "Early Influence".[117] He was ranked second in CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003, behind only Johnny Cash who recorded the song "The Night Hank Williams Came To Town". His son, Hank Jr., was ranked on the same list.[134] Canadian singer Sneezy Waters performed as Williams in the stage play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave.[135] A 1980 movie adaptation also starring Waters was produced for television.[136]

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him number 74 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[137] In 2005, the BBC documentary series Arena featured an episode on Williams.[138]

In 2010, Williams' 1949 MGM number one hit, "Lovesick Blues", was inducted into the Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame.[139] The same year, Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings ...Plus! was honored with a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album.[140] In 1999, Williams was inducted into the Native American Music Hall of Fame.[141] On April 12, 2010, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Williams a posthumous special citation that paid tribute to 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".[142]

Hank Williams, Jr.
Williams' grandson, Hank Williams III

Several of Williams' descendants became musicians: son Hank Williams Jr., daughter Jett Williams, grandsons Hank Williams III and Sam Williams, and granddaughters Hilary Williams and Holly Williams are also country musicians.[143][144][145] In July 2020, his granddaughter Katherine (Hank Jr.'s daughter) died in a car crash at the age of 27.[146] His great-grandson Coleman Finchum, son of Hank Williams III, released his debut single credited to IV and the Strange Band in 2021.[147] Meanwhile, Lewis Fitzgerald's son Ricky billed himself as Hank Williams IV following his father's claim of being Williams' son.[148]

According to reportage in the Los Angeles Times, on his road trips Williams carried a brown leather briefcase containing notebooks in which he wrote musings, lines and verses of song lyrics, as well as jottings on whatever had been handy. After he died, the cache of sixty-six unpublished songs in four notebooks was stored in a fireproof vault at the Nashville offices of his publishing firm, Acuff-Rose Publications. The vault was moved in 2002 to the offices of Sony ATV Music when it acquired Acuff-Rose.[149]

After the 2001 tribute album, "Hank Williams: Timeless" won a Grammy Award for country album of the year, there was heightened interest in similar projects. A&R executive Mary Martin, one of the producers of "Timeless", was consulted about other means of drawing attention to material from the Williams archive. She said that Bob Dylan was given the first opportunity to perform 12 songs for a CD compilation. Dylan approached Williams' granddaughter Holly Williams at a show where he gave her a sheaf of song lyrics he wanted her to read. She later said that although Dylan had said nothing about them at first, she recognized them immediately as her grandfather's work. He then said he had been asked to possibly cut an entire album, or that he might have other artists perform them. She heard nothing more about it for two years until Mary Martin revived the project and she got a phone call from her publishing company saying it was time for her to pick up some samples of the available material.[150] Consequently several other musicians got involved in the project, their main task being to create music that suited the lyrics. Dylan chose a song called "The Love That Faded" and fashioned a "honky-tonk waltz through heartache", while Holly Williams combed through the songs and songs fragments and chose one called "Blue Is My Heart", which had only eight lines. She wrote two more and added a bridge. The completed album, named The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, included the contributions of Bob Dylan and Holly Williams, as well as recordings by Alan Jackson, Jack White, Jakob Dylan,[149] Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow, and Merle Haggard. The album was released on October 4, 2011.

Material recorded by Williams, originally intended for radio broadcasts to be played when he was on tour or for its distribution to radio stations nationwide, resurfaced over the years.[151] In 1993, a double-disc set of recordings of Williams for the Health & Happiness Show was released.[152] Broadcast in 1949, the shows were recorded for the promotion of Hadacol. The set was re-released on Hank Williams: The Legend Begins in 2011. The album included the unreleased songs "Fan It" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band", recorded by Williams at age 15; the homemade recordings of him singing "Freight Train Blues", "New San Antonio Rose", "St. Louis Blues" and "Greenback Dollar" at age 18; and a recording for the 1951 March of Dimes.[153] In May 2014, further radio recordings by Williams were released. The Garden Spot Programs, 1950, a series of publicity segments for plant nursery Naughton Farms originally aired in 1950. The recordings were found by collector George Gimarc at radio station KSIB in Creston, Iowa.[154] Gimarc contacted Williams' daughter Jett, and Colin Escott, writer of a biography book on Williams. The material was restored and remastered by Michael Graves and released by Omnivore Recordings.[155][156] The release won a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.[157]

Williams was portrayed by English actor Tom Hiddleston in the 2016 biopic I Saw the Light, based on Colin Escott's 1994 book Hank Williams: The Biography.[158]

Lawsuits over the estate

After Williams' death, Audrey Williams filed a suit in Nashville against MGM Records and Acuff-Rose. The suit demanded that both of the publishing companies continue to pay her half of the royalties from Hank Williams' records. Williams had an agreement giving his first wife half of the royalties, but allegedly there was no clarification that the deal was valid after his death. Because Williams may have left no will, the disposition of the remaining 50 percent was considered uncertain; those involved included Williams' second wife, Billie Jean Horton and her daughter, and Williams' mother and sister.[159] On October 22, 1975, a federal judge in Atlanta, Georgia, ruled that Horton was Williams' common-law wife and that part of the copyright renewals belonged to her.[160]

WSM's Mother's Best Flour

In 1951, Williams hosted a 15-minute show for Mother's Best Flour on WSM radio. Due to Williams' tour schedules, some of the shows were previously recorded to be played in his absence.[161] The original acetates made their way to the possession of Jett Williams. Prior to that, duplicates were made and intended to be published by a third party. In February 2005, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling stating that Williams' heirs—son, Hank Williams Jr, and daughter, Jett Williams—have the sole rights to sell his recordings made for a Nashville radio station in 1951.

The court rejected claims made by PolyGram Records and Legacy Entertainment in releasing recordings Williams made for the Mother's Best Flour Show. The recordings, which Legacy Entertainment acquired in 1997, include live versions of Williams' hits and his cover version of other songs. PolyGram contended that Williams' contract with MGM Records, whose back catalogue they owned at the time, prior to current owner Universal Music's absorption of PolyGram the next year, gave them rights to release the radio recordings. A 3-CD selection of the tracks, restored by Joe Palmaccio, was released by Time-Life in October 2008 titled The Unreleased Recordings.[162]


Main article: List of tributes to Hank Williams


Year Award Awards Notes References
1987 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 29th Annual Grammy Awards Posthumously [163]
1989 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration ("There's a Tear in My Beer"). Grammy with Hank Williams Jr. [164]
1989 Music Video of the Year CMA with Hank Williams Jr. [165]
1989 Vocal Event of the Year CMA with Hank Williams Jr.
1989 Video of the Year Academy of Country Music with Hank Williams Jr. [166]
1990 Vocal Collaboration of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams Jr. [167]
1990 Video of the Year TNN/Music City News with Hank Williams Jr.
2010 Special Awards and Citation for his pivotal role in transforming country music The Pulitzer Prize Posthumously [142]


Main article: Hank Williams discography

See also: List of songs written by Hank Williams


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