One of the most heart-rending songs ever recorded, it was one of many songs Williams wrote to express his crippling gloom. Most of these songs were inspired by his tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Audrey; the state of their relationship can be neatly chronicled in Hank's discography with titles like "Baby We're Really in Love," "They'll Never Take Her Love Away From Me," and "My Love For You (Has Turned To Hate)."
Williams wrote this as a spoken-word piece that he planned to record as his alter-ego, "Luke the Drifter," which is explains why it contains very poetic imagery in lines like "Did you ever see a robin weep, when leaves begin to die?" Williams thought the piece was to genteel to put to music, but his friends and fellow musicians convinced him otherwise.
You would think that this song was recorded in Nashville, or at least Memphis, but it was done at a session in Cincinnati. Hank recorded it at the E.T Herzog Recording Studios on August 30, 1949 with Jerry Byrd on Steel Guitar, Zeke Turner on electric guitar, Tommy Jackson on Fiddle, Louis Innis on rhythm guitar, and Ernie Newton on bass. Note that there are no drums on the song.
Williams performed the song in October 1949 on his syndicated radio show, which was counterintuitively called the Health & Happiness Show (it was sponsored by a vitamin company called Hadacol, thus the name). The song was released on November 8 as a 78-RPM single with "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It." The song quickly became a favorite on Country radio and a staple of Williams' live shows.
A Country music standard, many artists have recorded this song over the years in a variety of styles. B.J. Thomas had the biggest hit with his 1966 version, which made #8 in the US. Other charting entries were recorded by Johnny Tillotson (#89, 1962) and the football player Terry Bradshaw (#91, 1976). Other artists to record the song include Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Al Green, Freddy Fender, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Cowboy Junkies, and Elvis Presley.
Singers and songwriters have been heaping praise on this song for generations. In our interview with Vince Gill
, he said: "Read the words of that song. That's as beautiful as you'll ever want to hear the English language put out."
Kasey Chambers, who recorded it for her 2011 Storybook
album, said: "It's totally heartbreaking but you don't want to stop listening to it. Oh God, it just makes you want to crawl into a hole. It has that combination of making you feel good and bad at the same time, which is what all great country music does."
Kris Kristofferson sang this in the 1974 film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Chris Isaak performed it in the 1996 film Mr. Wrong. The song also appeared in the movies Dutch (1991), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), Down in the Valley (2005) and Zombieland (2009). TV shows to use the song include The Virginian (1964), Miami Vice (1988), King of the Hill (1998) and The Wire (2004).
To put this song's impact in context: Rolling Stone ranked it #111 in the list of 500 greatest songs of all time; making "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" not only the second-oldest song on the list, but one of only two from the 1940s.