I Saw The Light: The Legend of Hank Williams
“When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man…”
Hank Williams: a legendary American music icon just outside the reach of today’s popular cultural memory. That’s who I’ve endeavored to demystify in a couple thousand words, anyway. A giant in his own time, shrouded by its inevitable and unsympathetic passing. A familiar name to some but far more often than not, just that: a name. But like a saddled horse without a rider, his very name prompts questioning. Who was Hank Williams again? And who was he, really? Who indeed.
Sometimes to understand the music, you need to know the man behind it.
Though born to Jessie Lillybelle and Elonzo Huble Williams in 1923, the Hank Williams’ story begins in earnest, when the angular country boy’s family moved to Georgiana, Alabama in 1935. Since 1930, Hank’s pops had been sick, real sick, suffering from a form facial paralysis so severe that it necessitated his near-complete hospitalization for the next eight years. Hank’s ma’ was forced to take charge and thus the move was spurred, as so many were in the Great Depression, by where one could get work. It was in Georgiana that our drifting young cowboy found the male role model that his absent father could never be in a hustlin’, hard-traveling, near-mythic bluesman cut from the heart of the American South.
But Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne was in fact very real and would prove to make a dually crucial impact on Hank. A savvy street performing troubadour, Tee Tot mesmerized an impressionable Williams with his mastery of showmanship, telling jokes in between songs and shuffling about as he played. Earning his nickname from his habit of carrying around a homemade mixture of liquor and tea wherever he went, Tee Tot not only primed Hank with a rudimentary musical education but also introcuded him to drinking and its often accompanying sorrow. In the midst of Prohibition, Tee Tot and booze would set this legend to be on his way. Mind you, when their two-year friendship began, Hank was 12.
In 1937, Hank Williams relocated to Montgomery, Alabama, setting his musical career in motion by way of a talent show held at the cotton capitol’s Empire Theater.
There, Hank stole the show, performing his first lyrically original song, “WPA Blues,” set to the tune of country pioneer Riley Puckett’s “Dissatisfied.” Taken with his keen knack for storytelling and the distinctive twang of his voice, local radio stations immediately took notice, routinely asking the 14-year-old to come and play over the radio. When overwhelming listener demand for “The Singing Kid” proved Hank to be far more than a passing fancy, he was hired to do a bi-weekly radio show at Montgomery’s oldest radio station, WSFA.
There may not have been any cowboys down home in cotton country but that didn’t stop Hank Williams, an avid fan of early western film, from becoming one. With radio show money in his pocket, boots on his feet and a Stetson on his crown, Williams formed the Drifting Cowboys in the late ‘30s, a name he would continue to use for his backing band through his career. While touring, our handsome cowhide crooner enchanted southern belles left and right, which often lead to full-on fights with their jealous beaus. In the early days, Hank routinely used his guitar as a weapon, cracking it over the head of anybody looking for trouble. “So he bought a guitar about once a week,” recalls cousin Walt McNeil. ”The cheap kind.”
In 1941, America’s entry into World War II led to the drafting of Hank’s entire band.
Deemed unfit for military service himself, the result of a painful birth defect, worsened by a rodeo injury, Hank delved further into the lonesome throes of alcoholism. In hindsight, many have come to directly connect Hank’s back problems with his rampant drinking. Born with a “crooked back,” since identified as spina bifia, Hank’s handicap regularly caused severe pain that was further exacerbated by life on the road. Such speaks to his excessive self-medication. In 1942, he was fired from his radio show for “habitual drunkenness” and before long he had a hard time finding musicians willing to play with him.
But in 1943, a down and out Hank Williams saw the light, so to speak, in Miss Audrey Sheppard, an ambitious southern gal who would set our hero to be back on track. In high hillbilly fashion, the pair was married in a Texaco gas station in 1944. By 1945, they’d moved back to Montgomery, where Williams began writing and performing for WSFA again. In ‘46, he was turned down by Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music stage show of unmatched prestige and influence, due to his lingering reputation as a drunk. But that didn’t discourage the pair, and within the year Audrey Williams personally wrangled Hank a 6-song deal with Sterling Records by way of Acuff-Rose Music executive Fred Rose. She’s a catch, Hank.
When they first met Hank and his go-getter wife, Fred Rose and his son Wesley were playing ping-pong in Nashville’s WSM radio studio. “We were on about our last game,” Wesley recalls, “when a tall, skinny sharp-featured kid came in with a blond-haired woman. They looked like average country folks. The woman said ‘My husband would like to sing you some songs.’ It isn’t normally done that way. I mean, you don’t just walk in cold and say, ‘Let me sing you a song.’ My father turned to me and said, ‘Have we got time?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ It’s lucky we had nothing more important to do then (sic) go to lunch.” Audrey’s boldness paid off as these recordings would garner Williams a career-making deal with MGM Records in 1947.
In June of ‘47, Hank got his first big-time lick of commercial success with “Move It On Over,” achieving #4 on the Billboard Country & Western charts.
Predating and closely resembling iconic rock ‘n’ roll mega-hits of the mid-’50s like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Move It On Over” serves as a telling indicator of the inherently broad and significant influence of Hank’s music. What’s more, it earned him an ongoing spot on Louisiana Hayride, a then-prominent country radio show that would propel our “Hillbilly Shakespeare” into homes, hearths and hearts all around the southland. It was 1949’s “Lovesick Blues,” however, that truly catapulted Hank into the stratosphere, hitting #1 on the country charts and #24 on the U.S. Top 200. Every subsequent single Hank released while alive, all 19 of them, mind you, would break into the C&W Top 10. Talk about a mean winning streak, boy.
Despite the hard drinking, guitar fighting and lady killing, Hank Williams was also a deeply religious man with a earnest desire to spread the word of God. Recognizing that religious songs might hurt the marketability of his mainstream material, Williams recorded a separate flow of spiritual musings under the name “Luke the Drifter,” an apt pseudonym for our ramblin’ man, wouldn’t you say? Primarily consisting of spoken-word over slow guitar, Hank’s impassioned recitations as Luke the Drifter exhibit a personal philosophy rooted in compassion, humility and a love of God and family. Recalling the 1953 LP, Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One: “I just about wore [it] out. That’s the one where he sings and recites parables, like the Beatitudes. I could listen to the Luke the Drifter record all day and drift away myself, become totally convinced in the goodness of man.”
That Hank Williams was undeniably a self-stylized man of contradictions is at least partially what makes both his memory and his music so compelling.
Unlike most, whether historical musicians or modern pop stars, his story offers both sides of the proverbial coin, mirroring the complex realities of the human condition. So who was Hank Williams? He was a crippling alcoholic who would go months without so much as a single drink. He was a deeply religious man who could hardly claim to be a wholly devout follower of the Good Book. He was a committed husband and a partying playboy. He was a uneducated hillbilly and prestige poet. He was both easy-going and morbidly dark. He was both “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
While it would be entirely correct to state that 1951 and 1952 mark Hank’s peak years as a commercial artist, personally speaking, they were darker than a Bayou backroad on a moonless night. Amid his mean streak of country hits, Hank Williams made his television debut on The Perry Como Show, singing “Hey, Good Lookin’” with Como himself in 1951. But soon after, Hank took a tragic tumble while hunting in Tennessee, reigniting his old bull riding back injury with a newfound and nearly unbearable intensity while his chronic back pain simultaneously surged. Surgeries proved wholly ineffective and in an effort to ease his spectacular pain, Hank’s drinking picked up again. Attempts at alcoholism treatment simply wouldn’t take.
At this time he began to take morphine and painkillers too, leading to increasingly erratic behavior and the squandering of his small fortune. What’s so unthinkable is that while almost every aspect of his life then points to a punishing decline, the hits kept pouring out. In 1952, William’s was fired from a wildly successful stint at the Grand Ole Opry and his marriage to Audrey, which had grown ferociously bitter in its later years, came to an end. At this point, long-time supporter Fred Rose left too. Hank missed gigs left and right, and on the progressively rare occasion that he actually showed up, the more-often-than-not pissed-drunk country king played piss-poor performances. And yet, in that same year, each of the five singles he released hit either number one or two on the Country & Western charts.
In the final months of his life, a haggard Hank Williams married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar in New Orleans before thousands of paying fans.
Hank fell in love with Billie Jean at first sight, which, incidentally, was while she on a date with country singer Faron Young. A cowboy to the end, Hank was so taken by Billie Jean that, right then and there, the romancing desperado pulled a gun, persuading Young to yield. But the end was near. Experiencing heart problems around that time, the newlywed Williams sought medical aid from Horace “Toby” Marshall, a man he met in ‘51 who claimed to be a doctor. As it turns out, Marshall was an outright phony and on parole after having been convicted of forgery. He proceeded to prescribe a weak-hearted, back-aching and heavy-drinking Williams a cocktail of narcotics and morphine that would prove to be more than he could handle.
Hiram King “Hank” Williams died of heart failure on New Year’s Day 1953 at the age of 29. En route to a performance in Canton, Ohio, years of hard living induced to a great extent by crippling back pain finally caught up to the country cowboy sensation who, like Billy the Kid, or any of us, really, couldn’t run forever. On January 4, over 20,000 people attended his funeral in Montgomery where a host of country singers, including Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Little Jimmie Dickens, Carl Smith, Red Foley and Webb Pierce, sang “I Saw The Light,” one of Hank’s spiritual singles. Though the strangely prescient number one country hit, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” marks that last single Hank saw released, eight more would chart posthumously.
There must be countless ways to write about Hank Williams without really getting it right.
It’s easy enough to get caught up in the darker parts of his legend, to focus too intensely on his erratic bouts of violent drinking, for instance. But while tumult sells, Hank’s truth lies in nuance. Particularly in this day and age, over 60 years after his death, the fact of the matter is that understanding his story is essential to understanding his music. Hank Williams existed in a world before television even took off, when audio recording quality was barely even passable to modern standards. He existed in a world of wandering bluesmen and phony physicians, in a now fabled version of the American South that, like Hank himself, seems nearly lost in time.
It’s for this reason that while the name Hank Williams may ring a bell, it often leaves one at a loss for words. His music is to white Southern culture of the mid-20th century what the blues are to African-American culture, and equally as influential. But while Hank’s music hasn’t aged in as flattering a light as the blues, his story serves as a sort of decoding ring, unlocking the magic and sorrow behind his high hillbilly hymns. Through the lens of his life, the complexity and soft-spoken genius of his heartfelt work reveals itself in full. To mirror a sentiment famous music critic Paul Nelson once shared regarding Jackson Browne: as impressed as I am with Hank’s art, I’m even more impressed with the humanity that shines through it. I guess you could say that once I learned Hank Williams’ story, I saw the light.
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