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Hillbilly Shakespeare: The Everlasting Legacy Of Hank Williams Sr.



Hank Williams Sr.

Mount Olive is a small town located in Central Alabama. It is home to just 4,224 people. Though small in physical size and population, the quaint Alabama town was home to possibly the most influential American musician who ever lived. In 1923, Hank Williams was born to Lon Williams, a locomotive engineer, and Lillie Williams, a church organist.

The Williams family was as poor as could be. They owned a small shotgun house, which is still open to the public to this day. A photo of this home is included below.

Shortly after young Hank Williams was born, his parents separated. The future star would spend most of the formative years of his childhood being raised by his mother. His father, who served in World War I, eventually found himself in a military hospital for most of Williams’ childhood.

As a small child, Williams spent his days in Georgiana and Greenville, Alabama. He religiously listened to Jimmie Rodgers, whom he adored from a young age. He would begin to play the organ and got his first guitar at just 8-years-old.

After exhausting the hymns and country music, Williams would seek the assistance of his friend, a street blues performer by the name of Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. It was through Payne that Williams learned the blues phrasing and blues rhythms that he would later use in his own songs.

Though he loved his mother dearly, Williams’ childhood was plagued by poverty and pain. He was born with a sever back deformity that caused the singer writhing pain for his entire life. Williams had a condition called spina bifida occulta.

He also grew up in the height of the Great Depression, which brought with it catastrophic financial times for millions of Americans.

Pain Causes Addiction For The Hillbilly Shakespeare

It is said that Hank Williams Sr. was addicted to alcohol by the age of 13. After undergoing a primitive spinal surgery (spinal surgeries are devastatingly catastrophic in 2024, imagine what they were like in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression), Williams began drinking heavily in order to subdue the pain caused by the surgery.

Unlike many stars who have turned to drugs and alcohol, it’s almost as if Williams turned to the substance out of pure necessity. Besides liquor, there was no reliable, affordable way to subdue his pain effectively besides drinking.

As medications were developed in his later life, Williams would graduate from alcohol to other types of drugs, including cocaine, morphine, chloral hydrate and heroin.

The most signature aspect to nearly every Hank Williams songs is the tragedy within the story. The sadness of the words. Most of that sadness appears to be have channeled through the extreme personal tragedy of Williams’ childhood, and the hellish conditions in which he was raised.

The Legend Hank Williams Begins His Music Career In 1937

After moving to Montgomery, Alabama with his mother, Hank Williams began to perform on local radio stations, and even started his own band called ‘The Drifting Cowboys’ from 1937 to 1942.

After the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, Hank Williams Sr. attempted to enlist in the Military in order to join the war effort, but was turned down due to his crippling back issues.

During the war years, Williams worked jobs in both Montgomery, Alabama and Portland, Oregon. The singer put his music on hold while the country fought World War II.

After the United States ended the Second World War on September 2nd, 1945, Hank Williams Sr. moved back to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pursue his musical aspirations.

Hank Williams Sr. Hits It Big In 1947

In 1946, Hank Williams Sr. recorded his debut single “Honky Tonkin'” for Sterling records, which was based in New York City. The recording was made with the assistance of song publisher Fred Rose.

Shortly after the success of his initial recordings, Williams signed another deal with one of the largest record labels in the country, MGM.

In Spring of 1947, Williams’ successful hit ‘Move It On Over’ earned him a spot on the vaunted Louisiana Hayride program. The 55,000 watt station proved to be an extremely valuable asset to Williams, as he rose to national acclaim shortly after his first appearance on the program.

Williams would make it to the iconic Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee in 1949, a remarkable achievement for the backwoods product of Alabama.

In 1949, Williams and his wife Audrey had their only son, Hank Williams Jr., who would go on to dominate the 1970s in a remake of country music. Hank Williams Jr., or ‘Bocephus’ as he is lovingly called, is one of the most revered artists in country music today.

Williams and his wife separated in 1948, before the birth of Hank Williams Jr., and later divorced. The divorce became a subject for many of Williams’ most beloved songs.

By the end of 1951, Williams had amassed 24 top 10 singles, with six reaching number one. Heading into Autumn 1952, Williams had two songs, “Jambalaya” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” currently charting.

He had remarried, this time to Billie Jean Jones, and was happily living in Alabama, making music, and touring the Nation. Though he still battled drug and alcohol abuse, Williams was otherwise well.

Hank Williams Sr. Dies At Age 29 On New Years Day 1953

On New Years Day, January 1st, 1953, Hank Williams Sr. passed away in Oak Hill, West Virginia after slipping into unconsciousness during a drug and alcohol binge.

He died sleeping in the back of his automobile, unbeknownst to his driver. His body would be transferred to Montgomery’s Oakwood Annex Cemetery, where his gravesite still attracts visitors to this very day.

An estimated 20,000 fans attended the star’s funeral.

Without a formal education of anytime, Hank Williams wrote and sang 167 original songs during his music career. Despite a lifetime of pain and suffering, his art lives on to this very day.

His biggest hits included “Hey Good Lookin”, “I Saw the Light”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Jambalaya”, “Move It On Over”, “Kaw-Liga”, and “There’s A Tear In My Beer.”

The Unbelievable Influence of Hank Williams Sr.

Nearly every artist since Hank Williams Sr. has been influenced by his music, even if they didn’t know it. Williams, aptly nicknamed the Hillbilly Shakespeare, was instrumental in bringing music down to the level of common people.

Folk music has been influenced by him, country music was essentially founded by him, and even rock and roll was shaped by his style.

Without Hank Williams Sr., there would be no Elvis Presley. Presley covered many of Hank Williams’ records throughout his career, citing the singer as a tremendous influence in his career.

Other bands and stars to be influenced by Williams include the Beatles, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Gene Vincent, and Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty.

It’s no mistake the rock and roll was formerly developed, and first heard of in the rocking beat of the 1951 classic ‘Rocket 88’ shortly after Williams rose to fame.

It was his influence that led to the creation of the genre. Those credited with creating the genre, particularly Elvis Presley, pulled large elements of their style directly from Hank Williams.

Without Hank Williams, modern American music would look entirely different, perhaps still dominated by the affluent, and not readily accessible and understandable from the perspective of everyday people.

Hank Williams popularized the music of everyday folks, and for that, his lasting legacy will always be present in nearly every form of American music.

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