Hank Williams Sr Death - And Difficult Life

by frugalrvers

Hank Williams Sr death at the age of 29, one would think, would have ended his music as well. But sixty years after he died, people of all ages still know and love his songs.

The life of Hank Williams Sr played out like a bad country-western song. He was born with a birth defect that caused him lifelong chronic pain, bereft of a father at an early age, raised by an ambitious mother, dropped out of high school to start singing on street corners, became successful and famous at an early age, then died basically by his own hand from alcohol and pills in the back of a Cadillac in the dead of night.

Of course, it also sounds like the life story of any number of modern rock stars that died young and tragically after burning out in a blaze of glory. Maybe that's what makes Hank Williams' story so irresistible to those of us interested in the history of popular music.

Hank Williams: Country Music Model For Stars That Died Young

Hank Williams is one of the most revered, respected, and influential songwriters in popular music of the last century. He was a pioneer in the genre of singer-songwriter confessional songs, but worked exclusively in the country-western branch. Although his career only spanned a few short years, his widespread influence on everyone from Elvis to Dylan to the newest Nashville star with a cowboy hat is undeniable. He missed becoming a member of the forever 27 club by only a couple of years, but his life story follows a tragic arc that is similar to many of the actual members' lives. For Hank Williams Sr, death at 29 was a great loss, and his life was cut short much too early, just like those dead at 27.

 

Hiram King Williams (his birth name) was born in 1923 in Alabama to parents Lon and Lillie. He had an older sister, and an older brother who died in infancy. Hank started life with a mild but undiagnosed case of spina bifida, a spinal deformity which caused him lifelong pain and on which his later abuse of drugs and alcohol has frequently been blamed. His father Lon Williams was a veteran of WW I and had been injured in an accident while serving in the military. When Hank was only 7, Lon was stricken with paralysis of the face and sent to a veteran's hospital, where he stayed for many years. Thus Hank grew up without a father, and with the burden of chronic pain.

 

Lillie was resourceful in Lon's absence, and a disability payment helped the small family stay on their feet. They soon settled in Georgiana, Alabama running a boarding house that became moderately successful. Hank received a guitar as a gift from his mother, and traded food and cash for lessons from a colorful local character named Rufus Payne. He was a street performer who sang and played on corners in the town for spare change. He taught the young Hank about music, singing, and playing the guitar, although the budding entertainer never learned to read music. Payne played mostly country blues, gospel, and popular songs of the day. Hank Williams had no other teacher than Payne, but he was soon on his way to making a living as a singer.

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How Did Hank Williams Die? The Life That Lead To His Death

In 1937 when Hank was 14, Lillie and the family moved to Montgomery Alabama, and she opened a boarding house there. Young Hank started writing songs, and won a prize in a local contest for his first one, WPA Blues, of $15. He also began busking in front of the studios of WSFA radio, and soon attracted the attention of the management. They gave him a 15 minute show 2 times a week, and paid him well for his time. His popularity grew in the area and he put together his first band called the Drifting Cowboys when he was only 15. A year later Hank and the group could start working full time, and he dropped out of school to become a touring performer at 16. While they played all over the south as far away as Florida, Hank began drinking to excess and having problems with the band early on. When most of the original members were drafted in 1941 at the start of WWII, he had even more difficulties with replacements, who wouldn't put up with his drunken behavior. At this point he was also fired from the radio show at WSFA for being drunk while on the air. Hank Williams was 19 years old, and already following a hard road that eventually led to his death.

 

By 1945, Hank was married, writing and performing again after a few years break, and back on the radio in Montgomery. The next year he and his wife Audrey went to Nashville, where Hank auditioned for Fred Rose and got a small contract. In 1947, he was signed to MGM and had his first big hit, Move It On Over. After working hard at touring and on a new radio show, he was accepted to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, the same year that his son Hank Williams Jr was born.

 

During this time he had been able to keep his alcoholism under control, but in 1951 he suffered a fall while hunting and hurt his back. He began to use prescription pain medications in excess and began the use if controlled substances as well. In 1952 he was fired from the Opry due to his substance abuse problems, which now included alcohol, prescription painkillers, and morphine. His last recording sessions were in September of 1952, and he had begun to have heart problems at this time. On New Year's Day, 1953, Williams was being driven in his Cadillac to a show in West Virginia. The night before he had been given an injection by his doctor, and he had been drinking heavily through the night. In the wee hours of the morning, somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia, he died of heart failure brought on by pills and alcohol, at the age of 29. The police found the back of the car where he had been sitting littered with empty beer cans and a sheaf of handwritten lyrics to unfinished songs. These were later put together in 2011 as a music collection titled The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams (see below).

 

His grave is in the Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams Music

Hank Williams Song List: The 10 Best Hank Williams Songs

The unfinished songs found in Hank Williams' Cadillac were finally completed and then recorded by various artists, such as Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams, on a CD released in 2011. His songs have been covered by performers from almost any genre imaginable, and the tunes are recognized by most music lovers whether they are fans of country music or not. You Win Again, for example, was a staple of Grateful Dead concerts for years, especially the classic early period when Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was still alive and playing in the band.

 

Here are the best Hank Williams songs, hits in his lifetime and posthumously, sung by countless other artists, and classics for all time:

 

Mind Your Own Business

Hey Good Lookin'

I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

Cold, Cold Heart

Your Cheatin' heart

Jambalaya (On the Bayou)

Why Don't You Love Me

I Saw the Light

You Win Again

Half As Much

 

Williams recorded in the era of singles and radio shows, so most of these songs are on collections rather than specific albums. Because many of his radio programs were recorded, collections of previously unreleased material pop up from time to time, but these songs are his most loved and well-known.

Just Some Of Hank Williams Music

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Just Another One Of The Singers Who Died Young?

I like to think that, as a musician and songwriter myself, it's not just the biographical facts of his life, but his songs themselves and his performances of them that make Williams an icon in modern culture. The truth is that he is a legend for all of those reasons, and more.

 

It's safe to say that Hank Williams' legacy will last as long as popular music is listened to and appreciated, and music lovers have an interest in history. The enduring legacy of his songs, his approach to writing and performing them, and his tragic life story all guarantee that he will never be forgotten. Although the list of rock and country stars that died young is long and getting longer, he was one of the biggest, one of the best, and one of the first to burn out before fading away.

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Updated: on 02/20/2013, frugalrvers
 
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What Is Your Favorite Hank Williams Sr Song?


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frugalrvers on 03/03/2013

Thanks for sharing, Lana! They are hits that have crossed generations...many bands still play his songs to this day...

Ragtimelil on 03/03/2013

I couldn't pick just one. I love "move it on over" and "mind your own business" and I'm not really a country fan. Our group used to do some of his songs.

frugalrvers on 02/22/2013

Thanks for your comment, Katie!

katiem2 on 02/21/2013

I don't have a favorite Hank Williams Sr, song but he is a fascinating person, seemingly his son is a great contrast to his father. :)K

frugalrvers on 02/20/2013

Glad you found it helpful (the list!). Jim writes most of our music articles and I do the rest...so this one he gets credit for!

Mira on 02/20/2013

Yes, it definitely has a certain spark of magic about it, whether it's upbeat or sad. I'm glad I discovered one more interesting singer! Listened to about five songs by now, using the list in the article.

frugalrvers on 02/20/2013

Thanks for your comment, Mira! Amazing how his music has carried on sixty years after his death, isn't it?

Mira on 02/20/2013

Great page! I am listening to some of his songs now. I like 'em :).



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