My mom and dad were both guitar pickers back in their younger days, but by the time I came along, they had both quit performing on-stage and at backcountry honky-tonks. I can easily remember, however, as a young lad, sitting around the living room after dark listening to my dad picking and singing the songs made popular by his country music idol, Hank Williams, and we went to sleep every Saturday night listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

My mom and dad were both guitar pickers back in their younger days, but by the time I came along, they had both quit performing on-stage and at backcountry honky-tonks. I can easily remember, however, as a young lad, sitting around the living room after dark listening to my dad picking and singing the songs made popular by his country music idol, Hank Williams, and we went to sleep every Saturday night listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

Hank Williams was, without a doubt, the most popular artist of his day. In fact, his promoters called him “King of the Hillbillies,” and I guess you could say, that was exactly who he was.

Hank was an illiterate country-music songwriter and guitar player who was more popular than any musician in his field had ever been before him. He rarely failed to have at least one record on the top 10 list during his short-lived career – such songs as “Your Cheating Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Lovesick Blues” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” – and they all reflected his own personal torment. Singing them night after night was more than he could endure. Hank was only 29 years old when he died on a dark lonely back road in 1953.

Williams learned to play the guitar at age 6 from a street singer named Teetot whom he had met while working as a shoeshine boy in Georgiana, Ala., and by the time he turned 12, Hank was playing and singing the local honky-tonks. By the late 1940s he was a regular on the two most popular country music radio shows of the South – first the “Louisiana Hayride,” broadcast live from Shreveport, La., and then the “Grand Ole Opry,” in Nashville – whose performers were acknowledged as country music’s brightest stars.

In 1951, Hank Williams earned some $175,000 making personal appearances all over the South five nights a week and returning to Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday, but that pace was deadly, and he needed help. So, for $300 a week, he engaged a personal physician, an ex-con named Tony Marshal, who had bought a mail-order medical degree. Tony’s job was to provide Hank with drugs to wake him up in the morning and put him to sleep at night.

In 1952 he was more popular than ever. And his earnings soared, but his depression, drugs, and hard liquor began to take a toll, and many believed his career was on the skids. A psychiatrist called Hank Williams “the most lonesome, the saddest, most tortured, and frustrated man he ever encountered.”

On New Year’s Day he left his wife and young son, Hank Jr., his fleet of Cadillacs, and his lavish Nashville home for another woman. He began wearing a gun in his belt and used it to shoot up motel rooms in fits of fury. He sometimes appeared on stage too drunk to perform, and cursed the audience, even throwing wads of money on the stage floor and stomping on it. It got so bad that in September the Grand Ole Opry banned him for erratic behavior.

On New Year’s Day 1953 he was scheduled to perform in Canton, Ohio, but on New Year’s Eve bad weather had grounded his flight in Knoxville, Tenn. So, he got some drugs from “Dr. Feelgood” and hired a driver to take him on to Canton. Hank died en route in the back seat of the car. The coroner listed the cause of death as heart failure.

Twenty thousand fans showed up for his funeral service in Montgomery, Ala., and it took a two-ton truck just to bring the flowers from Nashville alone.



Reference: “The Life and Death of a Country Singer,” by Eli Waldron