Hank Williams: A Short Career With A Lasting Impact On Country Music

hank williams career and legacy
Photo Credit: Discogs
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Country music’s first superstar left a lasting impact on the genre. For such monumental achievements and shows of talent, one would expect a sprawling career that spans decades. Hank Williams, however, did not live to see age 30. His life was short, and his career shorter still. But the legacy of his work outlasted both, and made him an icon, pioneer, and eternal classic in the world of country music.

Born on September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive, Alabama, Hiram “Hank” Williams grew up without much. His family had three children and little money. His father Lon worked as a logger, then an employee of the Veterans Administration hospital. Williams did not see his father much, and soon his mother moved them first to Greenville then Montgomery, Alabama. Financial hardships punctuated the physical hurdles Williams faced in his youth, and the isolation this caused him may have driven Williams to find solace in music.

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When parts of life are beyond a person’s control, they find that power elsewhere

Hank Williams
Hank Williams / Biography

Hank Williams was born with the spinal condition, spina bifida. This occurs when the spinal cord fails to develop properly. Though certain adjustments allow for totally normal experiences, Williams faced a sense of loneliness. He and others marked himself as different, and so he had limited places to turn to for enjoyment.

However, Williams did not need to worry about his spine when enjoying music. The power of carefully crafted sounds issued from radios and church choirs, and Williams let his ears do all the work when enjoying this activity regardless of his back. Williams spent his time listening, and when he listened he learned. After learning, he honed his craft. Before long, he could perform country and folk music alike. African-American street musician Rufus Payne then taught him the blues. Williams’ musical arsenal was loaded up.

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Momentum began early and continued just the same

The Drifting Cowboys
The Drifting Cowboys / Steel Guitar Forum

Such an early dive into music meant Hank Williams was rather young when his music career launched. At the age of 13, Williams was performing on the radio, roughly five years after first picking up a guitar. One year later, his band, Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys, performed in talent shows.

Though back pains plagued him his whole life, his mother offered constant and unwavering support for his musical passions. Even so, her carpooling trips included equally persistent back pain. Williams found increased success with music executives in Nashville as a talented songwriter and singer, but he also found an increased reliance on alcohol to endure his back pain. Prescription drug abuse exacerbated people’s hesitance to count on him as a performer.

Talent and turbulence defined his life

Hank and Audrey Williams
Hank and Audrey Williams

Williams faced pain, substance abuse, financial hardship and, eventually, loss. World War II caused many of his band members to be conscripted into the army. The success they had reaped now fell on Williams to continue. After some difficulty, Williams reorganized everything and eventually married his new manager, Audrey Sheppard.

Despite some struggles, Williams was able to create more defining moments for his career and the music industry as a whole. In 1947, he recorded “Move It On Over” after recording “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin’.” He signed a contract with MGM Records and joined the Louisiana Hayride radio program. His cover of “Lovesick Blues” solidified Hank Williams as a household name.

Meeting and departing with joy and grief

hank williams looking back on his career
Williams Family / Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Tensions grew as music, spouse, mother, and pain all vyed for Williams’ attention. “Honky Tonkin’ gave Williams his second Billboard success. “Lovesick Blues” caught the attention of executives at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and he was invited to play. This seemed to break the dam and let success pour in for Williams. He became regarded as a sensation and only kept fueling his fame and reverence. Big hits like “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Lost Highway,” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” filled the airwaves.

By July, 1952, Sheppard divorced him. He continued to record and perform hit after hit, but the pain took its toll. Williams turned to substance abuse, and by August he was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry because intoxication caused him to continually miss shows. When his new team was able to get him on stage, performance qualities were inconsistent.

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An untimely end bookmarks a shocking career

Williams had a major impact on music as a whole
Williams had a major impact on music as a whole / Rolling Stone

Williams was supposed to have performed near the time of his untimely death. He was even writing around that time, found in a Cadillac with unfinished song lyrics written on nearby papers. Among the scraps of paper were beer bottles. On the way to a performance during a trip detoured by storms, Hank Williams passed away. His driver stopped at a restaurant during their trek and asked Williams if he wanted something to eat, which Williams declined. This refusal is believed to be the last sentence he spoke.

Initially, his awaiting fans did not believe Hank Williams had died. To them, this was some new colorful excuse for his tardiness. But the beginnings of the tribute song, “I Saw the Light,” audience members joined in while the truth settled in their hearts. Hank Williams leaves behind a legacy that touches as many people as influenced him. The support of his mother carried him through anguish and unlikely odds. The teachings of Rufus Payne provided vital lessons on a whole array of musical techniques and guitar performances at a formative point in his life. The results on country music, and music as a whole, are a group effort which Hank Williams determinedly channeled in an achingly short career.

Hank Williams' Cadilac
Hank Williams’ Cadillac / Jackie Sheckler Finch

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