September 17, 1923 - January 1, 1953
Born Hiram Williams in Mount Olive, Alabama, Hank Williams is a mythical legend of country music. With little contact from his father, who moved into a veteran's hospital when Williams was six, he often felt a loneliness that was displayed in his music. His musical influences were typically local gospel and blues artists. African American street performer Rufus "Teetot" Payne is credited with teaching Williams how to play a guitar.
Williams scored his first hit song with "Move It on Over" in 1947. He received his invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry two years later, after his successful recording of the minstrel era song, "Lovesick Blues." Despite never learning to read music, Williams was a prolific songwriter including country music classics such as "Hey, Good Lookin'," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Your Cheatin' Heart." He recorded a total of 66 songs in his six-year recording career, 37 of which became hit records. It was not unheard of for Williams to record three hit songs in one afternoon.
In addition to recording songs with his wife, Audrey, Williams recorded 14 songs as his alter ego, Luke the Drifter. The identity of the wise and moral Luke was supposed to be kept secret, although Williams would perform Luke the Drifter songs during his live shows. These songs were often narratives, in a drawn-out blues style, and so different from the typical Williams songs that he did not want to record them under his own name out of fear that it would negatively influence his marketability. After Williams died, MGM released a box set of Luke the Drifter records with Williams listed as the singer.
Williams was plagued by back pain throughout his life, likely due to spina bifida. This left him unable to perform manual labor typical of men of his generation, such as farming or logging, and life on the road as a Country singer only made it worse. An operation in 1951 gave him no relief and actually increased his pain.
The combination of unending physical pain and the pressure of being a successful recording artist led to Williams seeking solace in drugs in alcohol. Increasing periods of drunkenness resulted in marital troubles and, in August 1952, his dismissal from the Grand Ole Opry. After repeatedly missing shows and other scheduled appearances, he earned the reputation as an unreliable drunk, reaching the point where the only work he could find was playing beerhalls in Louisiana and Texas.
Williams died en route to a show in Canton, Ohio on January 1, 1953. Inclement weather prevented him from flying, so he hired a college student to drive him. His dead body was discovered in the back seat of the car during a stop for gas in Oak Hill, West Virginia. It is widely suspected, although unconfirmed, that he died from a lethal combination of alcohol and drugs prescribed by a fake doctor who Williams hired as his personal physician. The 1952 Cadillac convertible that Williams died in is on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Williams was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category in 1987. He won a posthumous Grammy Award in 1990 for a collaboration with his son, Hank Williams, Jr. for "There's a Tear in My Beer." The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams was released in 2011. Artists including Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Williams' granddaughter, Holly, contributed to the project, which involved completing songs based on notes found with Williams when he died. The unfinished song lyrics were found in a dumpster by a janitor for Sony Music in 2006 before being given to Dylan, who was asked to complete them.
In 1951 he hosted the 15-minute "Mother's Best Flour" radio program for Nashville's WSM station. He also wrote and sang jingle for the sponsor's flour and cornmeal products:
I love to have that gal around
Her biscuits are so nice and brown
Her pies and cakes beat all the rest
Cause she makes them all with Mother's Best
In 1999, the compilation Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus! earned a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album.