Hank Williams

 

Hank Williams photo 1

 

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Hank Williams photo 3

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Contributors: David Lewis, Andrew Shields, Dave Stephens

Given the importance of today’s subject, Toppermost asked three of its regular contributors to give their opinions. Few artists have made us so keenly aware of the difficulty of condensing their work into 15 songs (and that meant 5 each), but we’ve found them. Lewis wrote the first part. Shields the second and Stephens rounds it out.

 

The ultimate country hero; the story of Hank Williams might have overshadowed the songs, but the songs are so great that the story can become almost irrelevant. The pain-wracked, alcoholic, drug addicted, heartbroken musical genius has given us some of the most timeless songs. His early and symbolic death, at the age of thirty, just before the rock and roll era, is wrapped in mystery. His marriage – all ego, infidelity and soap opera – fuelled the songs, and probably fuelled his early death. It certainly fuelled the prodigious amount of drug and alcohol abuse. His charisma, talent and unreliability all fed into the legend. But at the end, at least from this listener’s viewpoint, it’s the songs.

It’s hard to explain the gorgeous music – basic chord progressions and often recycled melodies. The lyrics are a major part – Gram Parsons apparently used to play Hank, tears streaming down his face, saying ‘That’s the King of Broken Hearts’. Simple yet sophisticated – rural yet universal. Williams came up through the honky-tonks – the bars which played the music of the rural working class.

Jimmie Rodgers photo

Jimmie Rodgers (The Singing Brakeman)

The songs sung of everyday experiences. Straight out of Jimmie Rodgers, ‘The Singing Brakeman’, and with a touch of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, Williams perfected the art – raising it to a level of perfection rarely matched since.

Hank’s life defies belief. Most soap opera writers would reject it as a script for being too outrageous. He was deeply entwined in the Nashville community and the folk community, and many names that have importance in his life are omitted for space reasons. Readers are directed to Colin Escott’s excellent biography (referenced throughout this post). You may also be interested in Your Cheatin’ Heart, a 1964 movie starring George Hamilton as Hank, and I Saw The Light (2015) with Hank played by Tom Hiddleston. It should be noted that Hank Williams III has criticized I Saw The Light but other members of Hank’s family have praised it.

Hank was born Hiram King Williams on 17th September 1923 in a small Alabama farming community about seventy miles south of Montgomery. His shell-shocked father spent most of young Hank’s childhood in veterans’ homes. His mother, who was to be dominant and domineering, played the church organ and sang in the church choir. Hank essentially taught himself guitar from the age of ten – he was never to be a virtuoso but he had a solid rhythm style based around ‘cowboy chords’: chords played on the first three frets of the guitar, utilizing open strings. He was taught blues by Rufus Dawes, known as Tee Tot, a local black musician. (Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe also had black mentors, and the blues is a vital part of all three men’s music.)

He formed his first band at the age of 14, and at 17 won an audition to play regularly on local station WSPS. He quickly developed a following and toured extensively in the South. At a medicine show he met an even more dominant and important figure, Audrey Sheppard.

Hank and Audrey Williams photo

Hank and Audrey Williams

He married Audrey in December 1944. Audrey became his tour manager, booking agent and general provocateur. It was a love/hate relationship. The marriage was volatile and not helped by Audrey’s insistence she was Hank’s equal in talent. However, she also encouraged him to overcome his stage fright. In 1946, he secured a writing contract with Acuff/Rose, the most prestigious publishing company in Nashville at the time. Although Audrey is seen as the villain in the Hank story, he was not above reproach in his treatment of her (adultery and abuse happened on both sides). And it is often overlooked that Audrey was a successful manager, record producer and agent in a time where women were not encouraged nor welcome in these roles.

Hank then had a highly successful run of singles, most of which became classics or standards. His band, the Drifting Cowboys, were a crack unit, and Hank’s stage presence highlighted the pain of his songs by his projection of the physical pain of the spina bifida which had plagued him since a child.

By 1953, his drinking had gotten out of control. He was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff berated him: “Hank – you have a million dollar talent but a ten cent brain”. He finally divorced Audrey and married 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones. While she was a more positive figure, Hank couldn’t overcome his demons. He was erratic, missing shows and having violent temper tantrums. His band left him and promoters became wary of booking him, due to his unreliability. The divorce was painful, as Audrey retained custody of their son, Hank Williams Jr – later a significant artist in his own right. Audrey exploited Hank Jr – dressing him up like his father and getting him to sing his father’s songs.

On New Year’s Day 1953, around 1:00am, Hank Williams died. The circumstances of his death, while not overtly suspicious, are mysterious. There was evidence of a fight earlier in the day, and the young driver who picked him up carried him downstairs, thinking he was drunk. It is possible he was already dead. His funeral showed the worst of Nashville. People who had broken with him, people who had crossed the street to avoid him were suddenly praising their great friend and greater artist, Hank. The funeral was attended by thousands, very few of whom had had any contact with Hank for years (Bill Monroe was an honourable exception – see Footnotes). The funeral service can be heard here. With Rock and Roll about to hit, Hank may well have faded into some kind of lesser relevance, like many of his contemporaries. However, the strength of his songs, and the influence he had – country’s first superstar, superseding even Jimmie Rodgers – meant that his songs would never disappear and are still considered classics, with an astounding number of self-penned standards.

Perhaps his best-known song is Cold, Cold Heart. Tony Bennett was reluctant to cover it – he was a New Jersey boy – what did he know about country music? The producer said, “just trust me”, and a new jazz standard was born. Norah Jones and the Band did major covers. Yet the original has a vulnerability and a fragility about it – Hank is talking to Audrey directly – and we are looking on, horrified, heartbroken and somehow – somehow – uplifted and improved.

Hank attempts Creole music in Jambalaya. The debate rages on as to whether it was authentic Creole, but the hundreds of covers render these discussions moot. He wrote it (possibly with Moon Mullican) and sang it and sold it. I doubt Mullican had much of a hand in writing it – though it was a departure for Hank, he’d based it on an older tune anyway. Mullican’s version lacks the zip of Hank’s. Another standard.

I’ve put in the joyous Hey, Good Lookin’ as Hank is more than just a litany of broken hearts. He runs the whole gamut of emotion. This cheeky ‘pickup’ song is funny, cute and with a brilliant and endlessly adaptable melody; it too is another standard. Apparently written for Jimmy Dickens, Hank ended up recording it himself.

The reason I’ve picked happy songs is because this next one is perhaps Hank’s saddest song. Its title says it all: My Son Calls Another Man Daddy. Hank’s marital issues with Audrey were expressed here. She hated him passionately and loved him deeply. The divorce was bitter and Hank lost custody of Hank Jr. (There is a strong case that his mother was a bigger influence.) Although Hank often wrote of his personal circumstances, this one was written by Jewell House. But Hank knew what the song was about, and poured all of his experience, pain and passion into it. And like all the best ‘personal’ songs, there’s a universality about it. Any father (particularly those in similar circumstances) understands. Anyone deprived of someone they love understands.

Perhaps the song that most defines the fantasy life of the drifting cowboy, Lost Highway has been covered many many times. Its iconic opening line: “I’m a rolling stone”, predates Muddy Waters’ take on the phrase by two years (in its composition and original recording) and one year (in Hank’s definitive recording). There is also a British Invasion beat group of the same name. And a magazine. Despite its melodic and lyrical brilliance, Lost Highway was not written by Hank but by the blind country singer Leon Payne. Hank’s performance brings out the pathos, desperation and longing for redemption of the lyrics. The imagery, the allegory and the actuality of the song has seen it resonate beyond just music. It is the title of a movie, and an excellent documentary on country music, and is somewhat of a mission statement for acts who are broken, or want to seem broken. The type of song that Hank should have written, but didn’t need to.

David Lewis

 

Where to start with Hank Williams? A giant figure in American music who was undoubtedly one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century and arguably is the greatest country musician of all time. As a singer, he also had the capacity to convey loneliness, desolation and despair in a way which only a handful of other male vocalists could equal. His lyrics also combined a rare emotional directness with occasional flashes of a keen poetic sensibility. Many of Williams’ best songs also had a deceptive simplicity, and their subtleties and layers of meaning only become apparent with repeated listenings.

Through his music, he also established a direct emotional communication with his listeners in a way which very few other artists could do. To quote Kira Florita, his “plaintive” voice conveyed “with unbearable intensity – sadness, loneliness, weariness, human frailty, frustration and faith.”. Arguably, it was his own experiences of hardships and misfortunes (which included the constant chronic pain he endured as a result of his spina bifida) that gave him the ability to describe such states so vividly in his songs.

Generally speaking, Williams’ songs tended to deal with universal themes (love troubles, domestic squabbles, problem drinking and so on). In his hands, however, such materials took on a degree of force which made them universal in their scope. From the raw way in which he sang them, his songs always seemed to involve issues which were matters of life and death to him. While his best ‘hurting’ songs undoubtedly represented his greatest achievements in his musical career, Williams also wrote many others which displayed his wry, if somewhat dark, sense of humour (such as I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive and Low Down Blues). The light/dark duality, which was always a key feature in his work, was also a key element in some of the fine more upbeat songs which he recorded during his career. The best of these include songs of the stature of Jambalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’ and Settin’ The Woods On Fire.

The other great theme in Hank’s work was religion and my first choice, I Saw The Light, is one of his greatest songs on that topic. His mother, Lilly, was a devout Baptist and his earliest music experiences occurred in her local church in McWilliams, Alabama. Throughout his life, hymn tunes remained one of his favourite types of music. At the same time, however, the strain between worldly temptations and the strict religious principles in which his mother had brought him up, were to be a constant source of tension for him throughout his musical career.

I Saw The Light also clearly displays the strong influence which gospel music (both black and white) had on his work. While on the surface it appears to radiate a degree of religious confidence, Colin Escott has argued that it can more accurately be seen as a “prayer of the backslider, who lives in hope of redemption.” Arguably, it is this conflicted element in the song which gives it much of its power. A live performance of it which also features the Carter Family can be seen here. It bears comparison with Bill Monroe’s version (found here with discussion).

The next choice, Cool Water, is a cover of a song which had previously been a minor country hit for the band, the Sons of The Pioneers. In their hands, it is an above average country-pop song which also features some fine barbershop-influenced harmonies. The solo version by Hank is far rawer. It also brings out the desperation which is inherent in the song’s lyric in a far more stark way than the earlier recording had done. The raw and pared back sound which Hank achieves here also shows another side to his style, far closer to contemporary ‘folk’ musicians like Woody Guthrie than it is to that of many of the country musicians who followed in his footsteps.

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry has been described by no less an authority than Elvis Presley as one of ‘the saddest songs’ he had ever heard. It also ranks among the very best (and is arguably the best) country songs ever written. It is also probably Hank’s finest lyric, a superbly poetic account of what could be termed ‘a dark night of the soul’. Colin Escott has also suggested that the finely-honed character of the lyric was a product of the fact that Williams originally intended to recite rather than sing it. In any event, the brilliant use of metaphor in the song (the robin weeping, the whippoorwill “too blue to fly” and the “silence of a falling star”) creates a remarkably memorable if bleak background. The brilliantly atmospheric playing by Zeke Turner on lead and Jerry Byrd on steel guitar further adds to the stark and haunting quality of the song. Here’s a superb live performance:

Along with his genius for ‘aching’ songs, Hank Williams also frequently wrote songs which displayed his keen, if sometimes rather rough and ready, sense of humour. Honky Tonk Blues is one of the finest examples of this in his work (particularly in the line where he tells his ‘pa’ he is going “stepping out”). It also features the classic country dilemma of the struggle between the desire for freedom and, to quote Joni Mitchell, “the refuge of the road” as set against the pull of home and the attractions of the domestic virtues. There is also a degree of irony in the fact that it is both a great honky-tonk song and a warning against the perils of ‘honky-tonking’.

My final choice, Weary Blues From Waitin’, is one of a number of classic songs that Hank wrote in the last year of his life. He co-wrote the song with Ray Price, who was then an up-and-coming young country star. As Colin Escott has pointed out, it is also one of “the most affecting songs” that he ever wrote. Although the song was released after his death with overdubs added by Hank’s backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, I have chosen the original demo version for inclusion. The spare recording, with Hank backing himself on acoustic guitar, gives this version an emotional impact and directness which the more polished version lacks. Like so many of the songs written by this superlative artist, it packs an emotional punch which very few other artists could match. Indeed, his directness, his sincerity and the sheer raw emotional power of his singing means that the best of his work still sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first recorded.

Andrew Shields

 

Without Hank Williams, rock and roll as we know it might not have existed.

Sure, Bill Haley pursuing his form of western swing with a soupçon of black molasses would probably have broken through but we already know that he lacked sticking power. Messrs Domino, Berry and Penniman might not have achieved crossover to a white audience and Holly could have remained an obscure country singer with a hiccuppy voice. The key thing was that record made in Memphis by Elvis Presley, Scotty And Bill in July 1954. Most people would give 95% of the credit for That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky to Presley, forgetting the fact that if Moore and Black hadn’t latched on to what Elvis was attempting with alacrity and supreme, indeed awesome, efficiency, then their inspired covers might not have got taped and Sam Phillips might have given up his attempts to record Presley. The disc that started Scotty Moore, Bill Black and several others into what we call rockabilly was highly likely to have been Move It On Over, the first Country Chart hit from Hank Williams way back in 1947. In the words of either Colin Escott or Martin Hawkins in “Catalyst: The Sun Records Story”, first published in Spring 1975:

“But overshadowing them all was Hank Williams. During the years immediately before the debut of Presley on record it was his style that had the greatest local impact”.

A couple of asides: Colin Escott went on to write what is generally agreed to be the best biography of Hank Williams and for more on my not entirely tongue in cheek hypothesis (supported by Escott/Hawkins) see Footnotes.

Move It On Over was essentially a medium tempo blues and several writers have remarked on its similarity to Haley’s Rock Around The Clock if you ignore the introductory “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock …” bit. As David Lewis mentioned, Hank Williams had learned about the blues and black music in general from Rufus Payne, generally known as Tee Tot, and it was that tuition which was likely to have been responsible for his heavier than usual down strokes on the guitar. Certainly, blues music had more of an influence on Hank than almost any other country artist, extending to his ballads as well as the medium to up tempo romps. I say “almost” since the earlier, but highly important, Jimmie Rodgers shouldn’t be ignored.

Where Hank did score over many later rockabilly and rock and roll artists was in the intelligence and natural flow of his lyrics. Move It On Over would probably have been classified as a novelty record at the time but its seven verses ensured a high level of entertainment all the way through. Greil Marcus has written an excellent article on aspects of Hank’s lyric writing with the focus on the up tempo efforts. Such writing strongly influenced the better early rock composers including Buddy Holly and early country fan, Chuck Berry.

Hank’s apparent ability to conjure up songs with ease would appear to have been subjected to question by the man who was to become virtually his mentor, Fred Rose, if one is to believe the story that has attached itself to the song Mansion On The Hill, wherein Fred gives Hank a title or theme and challenges him to write a song around it immediately. Wiki refers to the story as apocryphal though I’m rather more inclined to go along with the line taken by Colin Escott in his biography of Hank (see Footnotes).

“Mansion” isn’t one of Hank’s longest songs. Verse one sets up the visual image – “As I sit here alone in my cabin / I can see your mansion on the hill”. Verse two paints the background. Verse three layers on the perspective of “all the years” and the final verse is back to the present with silence, stillness and sorrow. While the rhythm is almost jaunty, what your brain first takes on board is that sad fiddle, then Hank’s even sadder voice, then those words and that haunting final line, “In Your Loveless Mansion On The Hill”.

The immediate follow-up to the release of Mansion On The Hill in late 1948 was Lovesick Blues in February 1949. This was a somewhat unusual and indeed controversial departure for Hank. The song originally came from a musical Oh, Ernest and it was written by two gentlemen called Cliff Friend and Irving Mills in 1922. So, it was in the pop domain rather than country and was recorded by one Emmett Miller in 1928, then by country singer Rex Griffin in 1939. Given his desire to entertain, which sometimes implied using songs other than one’s own, Hank picked up the number and started using it in performance including his Louisiana Hayride radio appearances – he had already tried to get into the ‘bigger’ radio show, the Grand Ole Opry, and failed. Hank’s live renditions of the song started getting positive reaction almost immediately which led to a predictable desire to get it onto shellac.

When presented with the number, Fred Rose threw up his hands, at least metaphorically, in shock/horror. Not only did the song come from the pop side of the fence, it wasn’t one under Acuff-Rose ownership (see Footnotes). Rose is reported to have said, “That’s the worst damn thing I’ve ever heard” (source: “Hank Williams: The Singer And The Songs” by Don Cusic). The Acuff-Rose publishing rights did, in fact, get claimed which led to legal proceedings but that’s another story which I don’t intend to pursue.

In the studio, the musicians present weren’t wildly keen on the number either and a couple of changes were made. The verse/chorus order was switched around and a new intro was added, a slight variant on one that the session guys had already used for Ernest Tubb’s version of Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting For A Train. There was, however, considerable variation between the sides; Tubb living up to his forename and on the lugubrious side, but Williams even more sprightly than on his novelty records and throwing in a miscellany of yodels to boot. Perhaps his performance belied the title but heck, did that matter.

The rest, as they say, was history. This was the record that really broke Hank to a country audience and even reached out to the pop world. It sold 50,000 copies in the first two weeks and went on to achieve the number 24 position in Billboard’s “Most Played In Jukeboxes” List and the publication also named it top country and western record of the year. The rival journal, Cashbox, named it best hillbilly record of the year. Following the record’s success, the Grand Ole Opry invited Williams to come on board which was undoubtedly the biggest measure of acceptance in the country field at the time.

Hank’s divorce from Audrey was finalised on 11th July 1952. On that day he entered the studio and cut four songs: You Win Again, I Won’t Be Home No More, Be Careful Of The Stones You Throw and Why Don’t You Make Up Your Mind. All bar Be Careful Of The Stones You Throw, which came from steel guitarist Bonnie Dodd, were written by Hank. It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to guess that all the titles, even the outsider, were written/selected with Audrey in mind.

Hank’s You Win Again (originally titled I Lose Again, but changed at the suggestion of Fred Rose) is amongst the greatest country songs and performances ever. Simple melody line utilising those three chords highly effectively; supreme economy of expression with few words of much more than one syllable; lyrics representing contemporary America with emphasis on winning and the news (on the radio) with words that must have been going round and round in his brain. “I love you still, you win again”, the final line sums it all up. The “Rough Guide To Country Music” used more colourful phrasing about the performance – “Pain drips like ice under the Alabama sun”. Alongside this song, Lovesick Blues was frivolity.

Hank had a thing about hearts and tended to blame them for most things; when they weren’t cheating, they were seriously cold (as indicated by a repeat adjective) or, doing an about turn, they could be crazy, tied up in chains, too knowing perhaps, or even, as in You Win Again, not tell Hank what everybody knew but him. Your Cheatin’ Heart, the flip side of Kaw-Liga (a novelty song but one with sadness engrained right through the wooden indians), was the first posthumous single, and my what a single. Both sides hit the number one spot in the Country Chart and Your Cheatin’ Heart in later years found itself ranked #217 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time”. Williams himself described the song as “the best heart song I ever wrote” (source: Wiki). It was, of course, dedicated to Audrey who broke Hank’s own heart into so many pieces that you could never have put them together again – cliché but the best country music could make clichés sing. In the case of this song it was the lady’s heart that would actually make her weep, and:

sleep won’t come
The whole night through
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you

Melodically, however, although the record is a cast iron gold standard country classic – Wiki also reports that it was ranked #5 in Country Music Television’s “100 Greatest Songs In Country Music” – its chord sequence is more akin to a blues or R&B number than country, and it’s not difficult to imagine strongly riffing horns as a backdrop to, say, a Fats Domino vocal. The expression “Country music is the white man’s blues” has been heavily overused but with Hank it’s more applicable than anyone barring Jimmie Rodgers. Hank made less usage of normal blues tropes than Jimmie, and only rarely sounded like him – his usage of yodelling for example, was relatively sparse – but he was one of the greatest communicators on the blues condition in the whole of white music. From childhood he was in physical pain due to his back problem, which was only worsened by the alcohol and drugs he took to alleviate the symptoms. He was also in mental pain for much of his adult existence. The songs chronicling this pain just poured out, particularly in the last two years of his all too brief life; Let’s Turn Back The Years, I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You), My Heart Would Know, Cold Cold Heart, Why Should We Try Anymore; even the chugalongs like You Don’t Love Me (Like You Used To Do) and Half As Much (As I Love You) reveal the agony when you extend the punchlines. And in his Luke the Drifter persona he did away with the melody almost completely, focussing entirely on the agony.

Jimmie may have utilised the blues form to, paradoxically, sing his way out of the blues, like many black artists did. Hank used it as an expression of loneliness and self-pity, and in so doing created a template for much of the country music that followed.

Dave Stephens

 

THE HANK WILLIAMS TOPPERMOST

TrackSingle / Album
Cold, Cold HeartMGM 10904
Jambalaya (On The Bayou)MGM 11283
Hey, Good Lookin'MGM 11000
My Son Calls Another Man DaddyMGM 10645
I Saw The LightMGM 10271
Cool WaterThe Complete Hank Williams
I'm So Lonesome I Could CryMGM 10560
Honky Tonk BluesMGM 11160
Weary Blues From Waitin'MGM K11574
Move It On OverMGM 10033
Mansion On The HillMGM 10328
Lovesick BluesMGM 10352
You Win AgainMGM 11318
Your Cheatin' HeartMGM 11416

All these tracks can be found on the 1998 box set, The Complete Hank Williams

 

FOOTNOTES (from DS unless where stated)

1. DL writes: Bill Monroe had once sat in Hank’s car with him outside the Ryman theatre while Hank cried: “You’re the only friend I have around here Bill”. The two men were friendly competitors – Bill had covered a couple of Hank songs, and both men are jointly credited with developing the ‘personal song’ – that is songs that relate directly to events and emotions in the writer’s life, not hidden by metaphor, allegory or other literary filters. (probably inaccurately: Jimmie Rodgers’ TB Blues is an earlier contender, for example.

2. I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for the Hank & rock’n’roll theory. Escott & Hawkins were there before me even if they were less specific. In “Catalyst” they inform us that there were several artists operating in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta area whose music “… was essentially closer to the Southern hillbilly sound of Hank Williams than to western-swing”. Such artists included Carl Perkins, the Memphis based Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers, Malcolm Yelvington and more. On 25th April 1954, the Hank Williams obsessed Doug Poindexter with his group the Starlight Wranglers recorded Now She Cares No More / My Kind Of Carrying On. The A-side was a medium tempo ballad influenced strongly by Williams (though unfortunately Doug’s voice was no match). The flip was distinctly more interesting. The intro shared by bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore was a look ahead to the session a few months down the line when Black and Moore would share the studio with Presley. I should add that I’m not implying in any way that El was bringing relatively little to the session. He undoubtedly had a much more direct line to the blues than the other “good ole boys” in Memphis. The artists he covered in the Sun releases and the early RCA ones demonstrated authentic knowledge of the blues and R&B idioms and his confidence in interpreting numbers from such sources was unmatched by any white singer at the time.

3. Connectivity between Hank’s Move It On Over and rockabilly was enhanced via the cover version of the song by the Maddox Brothers and Rose in 1948. This take was considerably more raucous than the original with encouragement/commentary à la Bob Wills’ western swing records. It was notable also for the appearance of a ‘slap bass’, a technique using the upright bass that was picked up by many rockabilly artists. Fred Maddox will go down in history as its inventor and, according to Wikipedia, was playing it as early as 1937. Lead instrument, however, was still the country fiddle putting the record firmly in the hillbilly category even if later writers might have added ‘bop’ after that word.

4. Move It On Over was by no means unique in the Williams oeuvre. In a Nashville session in November ’47, he recorded four numbers including I’m A Long Gone Daddy and the Fred Rose composition, Rootie Tootie. Both were from the Move It On Over mould with Rootie Tootie featuring a male chorus echoing Hank’s words in line with black jump blues records of the era. One of the lesser known rockabilly artists, Pat Cupp, recorded Long Gone Daddy but apart from the main phrase, the words differ from the Williams song as does (slightly) the melody line. Williams would go on and record more proto rockabilly records like Mind Your Own Business (which was embellished with some splendid bluesy guitar work) and his fine version of Moon Mullican’s Cherokee Boogie.

Tee Tot photo

5. The memorial to Tee Tot Payne, which was erected on an originally unmarked grave, states:

“Born in Lowndes County, Alabama, Rufus Payne grew up in New Orleans in midst of jazz musicians. Young Payne learned every instrument possible. At death of his parents, he came back to Greenville where he soon had a following of both races, playing jazz and blues for all segments of society. In nearby Georgiana he met young Hank Williams, an eager student of the rhythm and beat of Tee-Tot’s music. In 1937, Williams moved to Montgomery and soon thereafter Tee-Tot came to the city where he lived until his death in 1939, a friend of Williams’ family and mentor to the singer-composer. Hank Williams stated that Payne was his only teacher. Tee-Tot died a pauper and lies here in an unmarked grave.”

The blog Hillbilly-Music.com makes reference to the biography entitled “Hank Williams: Country Music’s Tragic King” written by Jay Caress and states:

“He (Tee Tot Payne) taught Hank more than just the guitar. Tee Tot began to open Hank’s eyes to the world a bit, and more of what it might take to be an entertainer and keep the crowds happy. Mr. Caress notes that they had to put the poetry aside and learn to draw a crowd. Being a street singer meant he did not get to play to a captive audience. That meant he had to grab their attention with a style and delivery that would make them want to stop and listen.”

The blog goes on to say “Hank always gave credit to Tee Tot. “All the musical training I ever had was from him.””

6. Regarding the song, Mansion On A Hill, Colin Escott initially documents a version he heard from Wesley Rose, Fred’s son:

“According to Wesley, he and his father were having a lunchtime game of Ping-Pong in WSM’s recreation room on the fifth floor of the National Life and Accident Company building when Hank and Audrey walked in unannounced and asked to audition some songs. After listening to the songs, Fred is supposed to have asked Hank to prove that he hadn’t bought the songs by telling him to write one on the spot. Rose suggested a not particularly original theme: a woman leaves the one she truly loves to marry a man with money. Hank is supposed to have taken himself off into a side room and to have emerged with “A Mansion On The Hill.” Fred signed him. Wesley nodded in accordance.”

It’s a great story but Escott himself subsequently appears to be sceptical and there’s an alternative version from Audrey (which is present in both the Wikipedia feature on the song and Escott’s biography) which loosens the challenge aspect to a title that Rose gave Williams to work on i.e. to see what he could do with it. The fact that the song doesn’t get recorded until several months have elapsed since Hank started working with Fred Rose, lines up better with this version. What certainly does seem likely is that Rose suggested the title; it’s somehow not one you would imagine Hank coming up with.

7. Fred Rose, along with country star Roy Acuff, set up the first Nashville based music publishing company, Acuff-Rose Music. Prior to doing so, Rose accrued experience working as a songwriter in New York’s Tin Pan Alley as well as Nashville. A different interpretation on the Mansion On The Hill ‘challenge’ is that, when presented with the quality and quantity of Williams’ songs, Rose could have been attempting to assess whether Hank could produce songs ‘to order’ much as some Tin Pan Alley writers did when generating songs for shows etc.

8. There are a couple of addenda to the Mansion On A Hill story, both indicative of resonance through the years. Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen recorded songs entitled Mansion On A Hill. Both songs were new but neither composer would have been unaware of the original and the Springsteen song used some of Hank’s lyrical phrasing. Springsteen also gave a keynote speech on his musical heroes in the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, TX in 2012, which included a portion on Hank.

9. One of Rex Griffin’s claims to fame was writing the original Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby which he recorded in 1934. The song later got modified and recorded by Carl Perkins in 1957 and there was a later version, based on the Perkins cut, from the Beatles in 1964.

10. Hank’s version of Lovesick Blues was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress. The essay that accompanied the entry stated: “Williams’s take on the song upped its twang quotient and incorporated various yodelling effects.”

The writer also noted the fact that the record ultimately sold 11 million copies.

11. Re, Your Cheatin’ Heart, in fact The Fat Man did record the song, even if it was tucked away on an album (Let The Four Winds Blow from 1961, within which he also had a go at You Win Again). Just listen to that right hand hammering the triplets. Fats had had his share of misery too, “Every night about this time, I go to sleep to keep from crying”. And Little Richard used that same sequence in another crying song Boo Hoo Hoo Hoo (note the same usage of four syllables in the opening line), which might have sounded considerably more manic but it was actually taken at a slightly slower pace than Hank’s “Cheatin’ Heart”.

12. Hank very much focussed his attention on the heart as the body organ responsible for a relationship going down the plughole though he was hardly unique in so doing. A later song writer, Mickey Newbury, disagreed with this premise – “It’s not her heart, Lord, it’s her mind / she didn’t mean to be unkind / why she even woke me up to say goodbye”. Mickey wasn’t averse to covering the occasional Williams song though, finding more chords in You Win Again than Hank ever dreamed of. Mickey was a believer in both Lefty and Hank, just check out Ain’t No News Today:

Lord I love a country song
That brightens up the day
If he could see the way it’s gone
I just know old Hank would say

Ain’t no news today
Ain’t nothing new to say
Ah but everything’s okay
The music’s here to stay

13. Hank often used to close his live shows with the line, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise, we’ll see y’all again soon”. Jerry Reed wrote a song with the title If The Good Lord’s Willing and judging by the way that line continues, it was evidently inspired by Hank. Johnny Cash covered the number on his, initially solitary, Sun album Hot And Blue Guitar.

14. According to the very helpful folk responsible for the Sun information on 706 Union Avenue, on 15th May 1958, Johnny Cash and Jack Clement were in the Sun Studio and Jack subsequently reported: “One day we were trying to get some songs and he was in a hurry and there was this Hank Williams songbook on top of the playback speaker out in the studio and I said sing me five Hank Williams songs real quick. Just you and the boys and I’ll keep the band real low and you sing them and I’ll get some people later to fix the music.” They took 45 minutes to complete them, and four of the five songs were released with overdubbing on an EP in July that year.

15. One of the biggest egos in show business stated in an interview with Country Music in October 1979, “Y’know, son, there’s only been four of us: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis.” No prizes for guessing who that remark came from and the whole interview with the Killer was reprinted in The Guardian in 2014. To back that statement up, Jerry has recorded a high number of Williams numbers over the years and, in my humble opinion, is the best interpreter of Hank bar none. I would present as evidence firstly, Jambalaya, the song that opened side 2 of Jerry’s first (self-titled) album; secondly, jumping forward to 1964 and the Star Club, Hamburg, wherein Jerry takes a break from the frantic stuff and delivers a stunning Your Cheatin’ Heart with teardrops coming down like rain; and finally going all the way back to Great Balls Of Fire in ’57 and flipping it where we find the best version ever, outside the author’s own, of You Win Again. To his eternal credit, Keith Shackleton made that one of his selections in the Jerry Lee Toppermost.

16. In addition to the very wide range of covers/versions that have emerged over the years of Hank Williams numbers, there’s also a smaller but still substantial sub-industry that has grown up of songs that reference Hank in some manner. The ones below are just a few:

David Allan Coe – The Ride
Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. – The Conversation
Waylon Jennings – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way
Johnny Cash – The Night Hank Williams Came To Town
Alan Jackson – Midnight In Montgomery
Stoney Edwards – Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul
Leonard Cohen – Tower Of Song
The Waterboys – Has Anybody Here Seen Hank
Van Morrison – Ancient Evenings

That’s just some of the more interesting ones that appear in a very long list in Wikipedia’s List Of Tributes to Hank Williams. One that doesn’t appear in the list is Tom Russell’s excellent song entitled, Nina Simone which doesn’t sound a likely candidate until you reach the line, “It’s just Hank Williams talking to Nina Simone”.

17. AS points out: The excellent Long White Cadillac, written by Dave Alvin, is another song which is dedicated to Hank Williams. It’s worth sharing this edit of Mark Deming’s review of the song on the AllMusic site:

“The cult of the rock star who lived fast and died young before he/she could witness their artistic decline hardly began with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison – in fact, the whole idea predates rock & roll as we generally know it. On New Years Day, 1953, more than a year before Elvis Presley would enter a recording studio for the first time and kick-start white rock & roll, 29-year-old Hank Williams died while napping in the back of his Cadillac as he was being driven to his next gig … while Williams is never mentioned by name (in Long White Cadillac), it’s obvious that Alvin’s lyrics are meant to record the thoughts of the great hillbilly poet as he takes his final long ride down the lost highway. ‘Night wolves moan/ Winter hills are black/ I’m all alone/ Sitting in the back/ Of a long white Cadillac’ … ‘Sometimes I blame it on a woman/ The one that made my poor heart bleed/ Sometimes I blame it on the money/ Sometimes I blame it all on me’ … which might have made a good epitaph for Williams. While many see more than a bit of romance and daring in Williams’ early demise, in Long White Cadillac, Dave Alvin isn’t having any of that – it’s a song which respects the legend and understands the importance of an artist such as Hank Williams, but also understands his last ride for what it truly was, a sad and lonely end to an often sad and lonely life.”

Here is Dwight Yoakam’s version of Dave Alvin’s song:


.

 

Drifting Cowboys photo 1

An early Drifting Cowboys line-up c1940 (l to r): Rufus “Pudin” Taylor, Charlie Mays, Pee Wee Moultrie, Hank Williams

 

Hank Williams (1923–1953)

 

Drifting Cowboys photo 2

Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys 1951 (l to r): Howard Watts (double bass), Sammy Pruett (guitar), Audrey & Hank, Jerry Rivers (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar

 

Hank Williams official website

Comprehensive Hank Williams website (including Fan Club)

Hank Williams: The Complete Website

The Drifting Cowboys website

The Hank Williams Museum (Montgomery, Alabama)

The Hank Williams Festival (Georgiana, Alabama)

A Hank Williams Timeline

A Hank Williams Journal

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Hank Williams

Country Music Hall of Fame: Hank Williams

Hank Williams – A Comprehensive Discography

List of Hank Williams Tribute Songs

Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter

Hank Williams biography (iTunes)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill Monroe, Mickey Newbury, Muddy Waters

TopperPost #770

5 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Mar 3, 2019

    An excellent and thorough piece that has me reaching for the CDs for today’s listening. On “Cold Cold Heart”- I think you mean the version from “Ronnie Hawkins Sings The Songs of Hank Williams” (1960) rather than The Band. Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm accompanied Hawkins to Nashville and appear on it. (And Scotty Moore is listed on bass.) The trouble is that the Anita Kerr Singers provide syrupy cooing backing vocals throughout which largely ruin it. See my 2001 article on “The Band & Country” :
    That’s quite vituperative about Hank Williams who I did not then appreciate. As a result of the article, I was given CDRs and lots of listening advice, and it’s only since then that I came to appreciate him. I was greatly assisted by finding a small stack of the MGM EPs cheaply. I will say I’m nearly with Fred Rose (quoted) that Lovesick Blues is the worst thing I ever heard. Well, not quite. It’s the Frank Ifield 1962 version that I really loathe, though his She Taught Me To Yodel is even worse. Bob Dylan & The Band did Be Careful Of The Stones You Throw and You Win Again on The Basement Tapes. Listening again to the Ronnie Hawkins album this morning, Ramblin’ Man and Lonesome Whistle stand out (less familiar and slightly less Anita Kerr). The “Timeless” tribute album, fittingly on the Lost Highway label, has Dylan, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Mark Knopfler. Standouts for me are Keb Mo’ on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Lucinda Williams on Cold Cold Heart.

  2. Steve Paine
    Mar 8, 2019

    Worth a dozen books on the subject. Thank you, gents.

  3. David Lewis
    Mar 8, 2019

    Peter and Steve, thank you for your comments.
    Peter: for some people Hank is a grower and as I tried to imply, his many strengths may not be obvious. I think you get that. And thanks for the clarification on all the versions. As Steve said, Hank is worth a dozen books.

  4. Glenn Smith
    Mar 9, 2019

    Great work gentleman, a mighty effort befitting the greatness of the artist, would not change a song, and so glad to see Honky Tonk Blues in there. The 1998 box set is the greatest advertisement for the compact disc (most box sets are..) I’d found the Harry Smith folk anthology in the 90’s which of course leads one to Hank, found the box set and you know the rest. There’s something about the metre of his songs, the lyrical emphasis, the heart beat (heart beating rhythm?) that just hooks you in. To use Andrew’s example “I left my heart out on the rural route, I told my pa I’m going stepping out”, not quite iambic pentameter but the same effect. It’s pure genius not just for the rhyming, but the rhythm of the rhyme, Chuck Berry was listening and took in every single step of every single line of Hank’s tunes, as has every other western songwriter since. Final comment: perhaps the greatest homage to Hank was Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show where he used Hank’s tunes as the soundscape for that bleak dust blown Texan landscape, it was as if those tunes had been meant for that tale, which of course they were cause they are timeless and universal and in everyway perfect.

    • David Lewis
      Mar 11, 2019

      Thanks Glenn: it’s incredible that the two greatest white influences on rock and roll were poor Southerners who were not formally trained. Hank and Monroe are who I’m talking about. I know you can put some of the swing figures in there, but as you say, those lyrics, which cut to the truth of the matter in a much more efficient way than the Tin Pan Alley folks.This is not to disparage the work of a Sammy Cahn, or a Gershwin, but it’s all encoded. Hank had no code. It’s all there in its broken glory. And the listener can relate.

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