Hank Williams stands as arguably the most enduring figure in country music history. He was a charismatic performer and a soul-piercing composer. Unfortunately, his career only lasted six years, and he never lived to celebrate his 30th birthday.
Born Hiriam King Williams in Butler County, Alabama, he grew up poor in the Depression-era rural South. At an early age, he was influenced by a local Blues singer named Rufus Payne. Often referred to as 'Tee Tot,' Payne deserves the credit for teaching Williams the basics of playing the guitar and entertaining an audience.
In 1937, Williams, along with his mother and sister, moved to Montgomery. Four years later, he landed a spot on WSFA radio, being dubbed as 'The Singing Kid.' In 1943, he met Audrey Mae Shepard. The two were married the following year and traveled to Nashville in 1946 as Williams did his first of two demo sessions that led to a recording contract with MGM Records.
Now associated with famed Tin Pan Alley songwriter and music publisher Fred Rose, he first appeared on the country charts with "Move It on Over" in the spring of 1947. Two years later, Williams became the father of a son, Randall Hank, who is known today as Hanks Williams, Jr. Also in 1949, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut, performing "Lovesick Blues." That night, Williams received an unprecedented six encores.
By 1950, he had scored with such hits as "Mind Your Own Business," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" and "Why Don't You Love Me." In the midst of those commercial successes, Williams began recording a series of recitations with spiritual and philosophical content under the name 'Luke the Drifter.' Those included "Men with Broken Hearts" and "Be Careful of Stones That You Throw.”
Williams was quickly becoming the top star in country music. The hurt, aching and longing in his voice blended perfectly with his true-to-life songs. In 1951, "Cold, Cold Heart," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" and "Hey Good Lookin'" were huge hits. Unfortunately, his continued drinking binges resulted in a divorce in 1952.
Devastated by the end of his marriage, he was well on his way to a collision course with tragedy. Following his divorce, many feel that Williams never drew another sober breath. In Oct., he married Billie Jean Jones, but his alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs by a bogus doctor were more than Williams could handle.
Following a performance in Charleston, West Virginia on Dec. 31, he returned to his hotel room where a doctor injected him with vitamin B-12 laced with morphine to help ease his chronic back pain. While en route to a New Year's Day show in Canton, Ohio, Williams died in the back seat of his new Cadillac convertible at the age of 29. More than 65 years after his death, Williams remains one of the most recognized and celebrated performers of all time. He was a charter inductee into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Charles Haymes is a country music journalist and historian. He has been covering the genre for more than 25 years. He served as co-host for the first two Arkansas Country Music Awards and is slated to return to that role for the third annual show in 2020.