At 100, the Memory and Music of Country Music Icon Hank Williams Lives On

At 100, the Memory and Music of Country Music Icon Hank Williams Lives On


The tragedy of wasted youth is one of the perennial sorrows of the human condition. The tragedy of youth that never gets the chance to grow old, to mature, to perfect whatever God-given talent they have been given is a double tragedy. Today marks the 100th birthday of a man who is both a seminal figure in country music and a reminder of the tragedy that lurks behind fame gained too early and too fast.

Hiram “Hank” Williams came from Mount Olivet, in Butler County, Ala., the son of a World War I veteran. He was born with spina bifida oculta, a painful medical condition that, in our so-called enlightened era, has often caused doctors to recommend abortion. Chronic disease in artists, Beethoven being a prime example, should be a reminder that the imperfect life is still worth living. To make creative use of suffering and failure, the crosses of life are always within reach.

When he was eight years old, Williams met Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black blues guitarist who helped mentor Williams as he perfected the fusion of hillbilly and blues styles that became his hallmark. In time, Williams’s work would influence artists as different as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles.

While he helped bring country music into the mainstream, his descent into alcoholism helped precipitate his death at the young age of 29. He recorded 55 top-ten Billboard Country & Western singles in those short years. His distinctive twang is still part of the American musical lexicon; his voice is still recognizable.

He was one of those lost souls who managed to alienate just about everyone. Between getting into fights at the honky-tonks he played in, not showing up for gigs and radio shows, and losing his way on stage, his career and personal life zigged and zagged. He died after a charity performance in Montgomery, Ala., for a musician who had contracted polio. He fell asleep in the backseat of the car on the long drive to a New Year’s Eve performance in West Virginia, and after years of continued fighting and alcohol abuse, his heart gave out, and he never woke up.

The musical biography of his life, “Lost Highway,” was a hit on the New York stage and continues to tour the country. Country star Roy Acuff, whose style Williams modeled himself on and who performed with him, once pulled Hank aside backstage, warning him to get off the liquor. “You’ve got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain,” he warned him to no avail.

Williams, who could barely read or write music, had a long series of songwriting hits, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin,’” “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Move it on Over,” “Jambalaya,” “I Saw the Light,” and many more.

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