It was widely recognized in the form of tribute shows, remembrances and merchandise sales that Sept. 17, 2023, would have been Hank Williams’s 100th birthday.

Had he not died 70 years ago, that is.

By Buck Quigley

On the morning of January 1, 1953, Williams was found unresponsive by his 18-year-old chauffeur in the back seat of a car while on an overnight drive on snowy, two-lane roads bound for a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio.

He was declared dead in the hospital at Oakhill, W.Va., at 7 a.m. He was 29 years old.

And with his death, his legend was born.

By 29, he was already on the downside of what had been an action-packed roller coaster of a career. As a young boy growing up during the Great Depression, he was taught how to play music on the streets of Montgomery, Ala., by a black Hokum performer called “Tee-Tot”—sarcastically short for “teetotaler.” As a teenager, his mother managed his career at live talent shows and radio stations all over the state.

By his early 20s, he was becoming recognized as a performer on the widely-heard radio show The Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport. His main goal was a spot on the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville — the home of country and western music.

But unlike every other singer who dreamt of merely performing on the show, Williams had a talent that set him apart: He could make up his own songs. Fred Rose, of Acuff-Rose Music Publishing, recognized it and offered him a writing contract.

Hank Williams in concert, 1951 Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Williams was really an early prototype of the singer/songwriter model. And an early example of a young musician who self-medicated with alcohol up until the very end of his brief life.

He was also a guy who fell victim to an unscrupulous quack who wrote him the prescriptions that did him in.

In many ways, he was the first dead rock star. Hank’s very public private life that included infidelity and divorce was not the type of narrative that helped a country music performer’s image back in his day. Today, it would appear that a troubled personal life is almost a form of cache that can translate into clicks.

Instead, what he left behind were his songs. They’re clever because they’re simple and to the point. And they always seem written from the point of view of someone who’s lived what it is they’re singing about.

Let’s check out the lyrics to “Your Cheating Heart,” which went to No. 1 posthumously, shortly after his death in 1953:

Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won’t come the whole night through
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you

This is a prediction and warning made to an untrue lover. It also has weird similarities to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Telltale Heart,” where the main character is driven mad by his own guilt. (There’s a lot of southern gothic in Hank Williams, for sure.)

When tears come down like fallin’ rain
You’ll toss around and call my name
You’ll walk the floor the way I do
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you

See? He goes on to tell us what’s going to happen next. He knows the drill because he’s lived it. He’s cried. He’s called someone’s name in an empty room. He’s paced around. He’s just telling us all from experience.

Oh, and furthermore:

Your cheatin’ heart will pine someday
And crave the love you threw away
The time will come when you’ll be blue
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you

And finally, once more, so you can’t say he didn’t warn you:

When tears come down like fallin’ rain
You’ll toss around and call my name
You’ll walk the floor the way I do
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you

It’s a theme that’s been played with since Greek drama, put country-simple by a genuine hayseed.

Some people never get past the the primitive, hillbilly instrumentation of the Drifting Cowboys — Hank Williams’s backup band, which usually consisted of bass, fiddle and lap steel, along with Hank on acoustic guitar with no drums.

Millions more people never heard “Your Cheating Heart” until it was covered in subsequent years by Dean Martin, Gene Vincent, and, in 1962, by Ray Charles on his landmark album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2.”

In 1991, my band the Steam Donkeys added a very loud, revved-up version of the song to our original set list and it was always met with loud applause around 1 a.m. at the old Club Utica.

This just goes to show that you can’t keep a good song down.

Credit: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

“Cold, Cold Heart” is another masterpiece that urbane jazz crooner Tony Bennett took to No. 1 the same year Williams released his version. This brought the hillbilly bard’s work out of the barnyard and into the ballroom.

His success can also be measured quickly with these stats: 36 hit songs. 11 million records. 6 years. That was how long his brief career can be measured, beginning with his Grand Ole Opry debut yodeling “Lovesick Blues” — which provoked an unprecedented seven encores — and ending with his lonesome death on the road.

By the end, he was a worn out troubadour trying to keep up with mounting debts and a touring schedule that resembled an ever-accelerating conveyor belt to oblivion. Shows featured jokes about marital infidelity and an impressive merch table that included songbooks and records not only by Williams, but by an alter-ego offering religious-themed recitatives marketed as “Luke the Drifter.”

One such piece appears on a very rare recording of Hank Williams made at the Capitol Theatre in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on May 4, 1952.

“The Funeral” is a groaner of a poem written by Will Carleton and published August 28, 1886, in Harper’s Weekly. Set in a “colored” church, and delivered with sentimental reverence by “Luke the Drifter” it’s embarrassing to listen to and puzzling to hear today — both for its evangelical fervor and racial stereotyping.

Local fans of country music will recognize the voice of a very young Ramblin’ Lou Shriver, acting as emcee for the Niagara Falls show at the end of the broadcast.

Aside from his role as a singer, entertainer, sex symbol and rebel icon, Williams’ most lasting contributions are as a songwriter. This is how he described it on the mic in Niagara Falls, seven months before he died: “Songwriting to me is sorta like eating or sleeping to some people. I get more enjoyment out of sitting down and writing a song that I think somebody will get a little enjoyment out of than anything I do.”

That simple, private, creative impulse led him to produce songs with an intimate tone that translated to widespread appeal. What follows are just 10 that I predict will prove to be timeless. Thankfully, I won’t be around to be proven wrong. Happy Birthday, Hank!

  1. Cold, Cold Heart
  2. Hey, Good Lookin’
  3. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  4. I Saw The Light
  5. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  6. Mind Your Own Business
  7. Move It On Over
  8. Your Cheating Heart
  9. You Win Again
  10. Alone and Forsaken



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  • Beatrice Summers says:

    Great fun to read this! Sure is amazing; the legacy and the legend that is Hank Williams. I can’t Help It is on every one of my set lists to this day. I just can’t help myself,, LOL!!! I would add Lovesick Blues to your list ! I learned that for the Patsy Cline show, one of my dads favorites. My Goodness, who would have known so many artists would cover his songs, look to him for inspiration. , you are right in that it’s the simplicity of the songs that makes them so relatable , so true. .simple, but say so much. Very well written, enjoyable piece as is usual. Thanks.

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