5 Fascinating Facts About Country Legend Hank Williams

One of the first American superstars, Hank Williams was what every country songwriter has been compared to since his death on New Year’s Day 1953. The 29-year-old represented the common person, with lyrics evoking pain, sorrow, and loneliness. His early demise led to a legacy featuring a collection of near-perfect recordings that was never tainted by the upcoming changing of musical styles so many of his contemporaries faced. Let’s look at five fascinating facts about Hank Williams.

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Williams Learned to Play Guitar from a Black Man

Williams was born on September 17, 1923, in Butler County, Alabama. At 9 years old, he met Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. Williams shared the memory with journalist Ralph J. Gleason in 1951: “I learned to play the guitar from an old colored man. He played in a colored street band,” Williams said. “I was shining shoes, selling newspapers, and following this old negro around to get him to teach me how to play the guitar. I’d give him 15 cents or whatever I could get ahold of for the lesson.”

Henderson Payne, Tee Tot’s son, spoke in the 2004 American Masters documentary Honky Tonk Blues: “It was black and white. They stayed together. They never had no trouble at all,” he said. “Hank wanted to learn how to play the blues. My dad knew how to play the blues, but he didn’t like to play the blues. He always wanted to make money. He played hillbilly music. That’s what they called it. Anything my dad could play, Hank could play it, too. Very few people know how to play blues. Hank know how to play the blues. That’s why he could sing so good.”

Williams Had An Undiagnosed Back Problem, Now Believed to Be Spina Bifida

In 1937, Williams and his mother Lillie moved to Montgomery, Alabama. His mother encouraged the 14-year-old’s performing career. She put him outside the WSFA Radio studio on the sidewalk, playing guitar and singing. Sure enough, he was asked to play on the air. The teenager suffered from extreme back pain. He would put together bands. They were always called The Drifting Cowboys.

Williams Married Audrey Sheppard Days After She Divorced Her First Husband

Williams regularly performed in medicine shows, hawking products to make the customer feel better. Sheppard remembered meeting the singer. “I met Hank on a medicine show. I had never seen a medicine show. I didn’t know anything about a medicine show until I met him,” she said. “At intermission, the performers would go around and sell all these herbs, you know. When Hank came by my car, he said, ‘Ma’am, don’t you think you need some of these herbs?’ And I’ll never forget this. He looked, and then he took a quick back look, you know. And he said, ‘No, ma’am. I don’t believe you do.’ And that’s what started the whole thing. And that Friday night, he asked me to marry him. I said, ‘This man’s crazy. This boy’s crazy.’ And I told my Aunt, ‘This boy’s crazy.'”

Sheppard was already married when she met Williams and had a 2-year-old daughter. The couple would wed in December 1944. Williams would go on drinking binges. Sheppard and Williams’ mother Lillie pushed Williams to further his career. He started bringing his songs to publisher Fred Rose in Nashville, who signed him to write gospel songs. Williams performed regularly on The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, on KWKH. He recorded “Lovesick Blues” and became a regular guest on The Grand Ole Opry.

Steel guitarist Don Helms summed up the couple’s relationship: “Audrey was always very nice to me, but she had a way of riling Hank up, and he had a way of riling her up. I don’t know if it was his drinkin’ that caused her to nag or if it was her naggin’ that caused him to drink. I never did know exactly what the formula was.”

Williams’ Publisher Tried An Intervention

Williams was having big success on the charts. He joined the Hadacol Caravan. This was another medicine show, but it was on a much larger scale. Hadacol contained 12% alcohol. It had enough alcohol to make you feel good and enough laxative to help you have a movement. The Caravan featured stars such as Bob Hope, Cesar Romero, Carmen Miranda, and Dick Haymes.

Williams’s drinking continued. His publisher, Fred Rose, wrote a letter sharing his concern:

Dear Hank,

I feel kinda let down today after receiving your call because I knew you were drinking again. And Hank, that is something I refuse to go for because it only proves a man’s weakness. Sometimes, we humans act in a funny way when things are not going our way. If you love Audrey, why don’t you try to straighten out and be a man enough to tell her you love her and you’re willing to change? The trouble with you kids is both of you all want to be the boss. Both of you have pride, and pride is one of the most destructive things on Earth. I’m opening up my heart to you because I love you like my own son, and you can call on me anytime when you are in a problem. And I’ll do anything within my power to help you help yourself. I am your friend, Fred Rose.

Williams Recorded Under a Pseudonym, Luke the Drifter

In 1950, Sheppard became pregnant and kept it a secret. She had an abortion. Williams brought her presents in the hospital. According to Sheppard, she suspected he had been cheating on her out on the road. She threw the presents back at him. His response was to go home and write the song “Cold, Cold Heart.” The following year, Tony Bennett also had a hit with the song.

Williams wanted to record more sermons and recitations. The label didn’t want to put them out under his name, so he developed Luke the Drifter.

Continuing back problems led to an operation where some of his vertebras were fused. Sheppard kicked him out of the house, and he moved into a house with Ray Price in Nashville. Shortly after, he met Faron Young’s girlfriend, Billie Jean Jones. They married in October 1952. Williams was losing interest in performing and wasn’t very reliable. He was dismissed from The Grand Ole Opry and returned to The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.

Just before Christmas in 1952, Williams returned to Montgomery. A show was booked on New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio.

Jones remembered, “The night before he left, we were asleep. And, all of a sudden, he jumped up and started shadowboxing. I said, ‘Hank, come back to bed.’ And he said, ‘Baby,’ he said, ‘I see Jesus coming down the road, and he’s coming after old Hank.”

His Last Words to Billie Jean

Before Williams set out for Canton, Ohio, Jones remembered: “I was in our room putting my makeup on. And he came back into our room. He came up behind me and, kissed me on the cheek, and sat down on the bed. And I looked at him through the mirror, and he looked like he was already dead. I asked him if anything was bothering him. He said, ‘No, baby. Old Hank just wanted to look at you one more time.’ That’s the last thing he said to me.”

Williams couldn’t fly because of the snowstorms. A 17-year-old named Charles Carr drove him. They checked in to the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee. A doctor was called in the middle of the night, and Williams was given a shot of morphine. They got up and continued toward Canton. Williams was likely suffering from a heart disease called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. He was given chloral hydrate, morphine, and alcohol. He was knocked out when they left Knoxville.

The driver looked back to see Williams under a blanket. He stopped at a gas station and checked on the singer to find him lifeless. Hank Williams was 29 years old.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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