He was an inspiring songwriter, an energetic performer, a tragic addict, a frail spina bifida victim and — based on his portrait of his marriage to Audrey Williams — a bit of a drama queen.
Sunday (Sept. 17) marks 100 years since his birth in Alabama, and the century milestone finds his legacy barreling down two tracks. On one hand, he was a breakthrough songwriter whose ability to turn real-life events into melodic, poetic soap operas has influenced generations of artists and composers. On the other, he remains a mythological figure who died in the back seat of a Cadillac during an overnight journey to a concert, a passage that is as mysterious and misunderstood as the bad fortune he stumbled into — or created — during his 29 years on earth.
Neither his artistic track nor his iconic level of tragedy would matter 10 decades after his introduction if Hank Sr. hadn’t had such impact.
“It’s so deceptively difficult to do what he did, like the ability to have humor and marry that with real, raw, honest emotion,” says Ward Hayden, whose Boston-based band Ward Hayden & the Outliers released A Celebration of Hank Williams Live on Sept. 1. “He definitely found something unique, which is why I think so many people have used his music as inspiration. I mean, he really set the bar.”
It’s often said by traditionalists that Hank Sr. wouldn’t have been able to get a recording deal in modern Nashville, but that doesn’t mean his presence isn’t still felt. In Hailey Whitters’ recent top 20 single “Everything She Ain’t,” the singer pledges to be “the Audrey to your Hank.” And in Walker Hayes’ current “Good With Me,” he lampoons himself: “Buddy thinks everything I sing sucks/ ’Cause it don’t sound like Hank.”
That’s one of the frequent criticisms of modern country: that artists who cite Hank Sr. might not even know, let alone appreciate, his music. Even in cases where that’s true, those performers still owe him a debt for the revolution he brought to the genre.
“Anybody who writes a personal song, in some ways, traces back to Hank because when he started, people were writing more generic songs — you know, the tragedies and the heart songs, family and home and God,” says Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum senior writer Michael McCall. “It wasn’t as personal, but Hank sensed all of those things and made them personal. People felt like he was singing about his life.”
Often he was. “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “You Win Again” — an achingly distraught ballad recorded the day after his second divorce from Audrey became final — were all about that central relationship. Even now, Kelsea Ballerini, Megan Moroney, Maren Morris, Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett are just a smattering of the country artists whose lives or their personal beliefs are incorporated into the material they record.
“We all feel like we know Dolly Parton,” says Williams’ grandson, Mercury Nashville recording artist Sam Williams. “People in my generation, with my music tastes, we know Miley Cyrus — we grew up with Miley Cyrus, we know her different facets. And I think that so many people are able to feel like they know [Hank Sr.] by the honesty that he put in his songs.”
Sam never met his grandfather, but based on the recordings, he believes he inherited some of the same personal traits: a tendency to be misunderstood, a “goofy” sense of humor, a strong work ethic and a posture as a hopeless romantic. He recorded one of Hank Sr.’s songs for the first time in conjunction with the 100th anniversary. Sam delivers “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with slight melodic changes, darker chord textures and a robust arrangement that heightens the despair in its text.
Sam released his version on Friday (Sept. 15), and he will perform it on the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 16 and again during a Hall of Fame tribute concert on Sept. 21, alongside appearances by sisters Hilary and Holly Williams, Lyle Lovett, Connie Smith and more. It’s likely that many of the performers will change the sound of Hank Sr.’s songs — in part because it’s so easy to do. Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Al Green, Pirates of the Mississippi, George Thorogood, Charley Pride, Linda Ronstadt and Hayden’s Outliers are among the scads of acts who found new textures in his classics, as did Hank Williams Jr., most famously.
“The songs are versatile,” Hayden says. “It’s not a blank canvas, but it’s a canvas that can be rearranged without completely changing it.”
Some of that comes from Hank Sr.’s song construction: conversational lyrics with basic chord structures and singable melodies. He left a lot of space for reimagination.
“There was just something about the simplicity of the music and the way he’s saying it,” notes Josh Turner.
The simple presentation doesn’t mean that Hank Sr. had a simple, one-dimensional story. As easy as it is to focus on the sorrow in his ballads or the deep well of inspiration he tapped, he was also conscious of his audience and was intentional about developing material that would connect. Particularly in such uptempo songs as “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Move It On Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Mind Your Own Business” or “Hey, Good Lookin’,” one can sense the core of a great concert experience built to satisfy a crowd.
“He was just one of those engines of charisma in early American popular music that took it to the next level,” Sam says.
Ultimately, Hank Sr.’s legacy is difficult to fully chronicle. For all the identifiable music in his catalog, a mythology arose around his drinking, the drugs, the fights with Audrey and his concert no-shows. His spinal issues created pain and led to experimental treatments, and most certainly influenced some of the erratic behavior. That tragedy, though, exists behind a haze of folklore.
“It’s similar to [Johnny] Cash. Rosanne says you can apply anything to him and it works because he was all those things,” says McCall. “Hank was that way. The mythology became a little different than who he was, and nobody could live up to that kind of mythology, but those myths are strong, and they influence people.”
Hank Sr., as an artist, certainly had an effect. His work inspired the likes of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Bob Dylan, Randy Travis, Kris Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Dean Dillon and Rodney Crowell — anyone who drew from those artists or their stylistic heirs is receiving his hand-me-down spirit. But part of the legacy that accompanies his creations is what Hayden calls “the archetype of the doomed country singer.”
Keith Whitley, who died from overdosing on alcohol in his 30s, seemingly bought into it and paid a price. Turner likewise bought into Hank, but not entirely. The emotional behaviors and the emotional material are both part of the story that surrounds Senior at the century mark.
“It’s definitely a cautionary tale,” Turner warns. “But he was also inspiring because in spite of the pain, he was able to go and do great things.”