Hank Williams Performs on Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hank Williams’s 1949 recording of “Lovesick Blues” and his performance on The Grand Ole Opry marked the emergence of country music as part of mainstream popular music.

Summary of Event

Little did Hank Williams know when he recorded the old Tin Pan Alley song “Lovesick Blues” in December, 1948, that he would soon become the most popular star in country music and a regular member of the prestigious radio show The Grand Ole Opry. The song, written by Cliff Friend, had been recorded before, and Williams probably learned it from his fellow Alabamian Rex Griffin. Williams had already been singing “Lovesick Blues” in live performances, and he finally persuaded his song publisher and record producer, Fred Rose, to let him record it. Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program) "Lovesick Blues" (Friend)[Lovesick Blues (Friend)] Music;country Country music [kw]Hank Williams Performs on The Grand Ole Opry (June 11, 1949) [kw]Williams Performs on The Grand Ole Opry, Hank (June 11, 1949) [kw]Grand Ole Opry, Hank Williams Performs on The (June 11, 1949) Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program) "Lovesick Blues" (Friend)[Lovesick Blues (Friend)] Music;country Country music [g]North America;June 11, 1949: Hank Williams Performs on The Grand Ole Opry[02940] [g]United States;June 11, 1949: Hank Williams Performs on The Grand Ole Opry[02940] [c]Music;June 11, 1949: Hank Williams Performs on The Grand Ole Opry[02940] Williams, Hank Rose, Fred Williams, Audrey Sheppard

Released in early February, 1949, Williams’s version of “Lovesick Blues” shot up the country charts and became Williams’s first number-one song. His bluesy, subtly inflected vocal, highlighted by a distinctive mini-yodel, effectively turned a standard into a country lament. Williams’s propulsive singing rode over a driving band and handled well the song’s middle section with its minor progressions. The recording was different from the usual country fare of the time, which tended to feature rather four-square rhythm-chord patterns. The song stayed on the country charts for forty-two weeks, sixteen at number one, and even made the pop charts in twenty-fourth position. From March through the end of 1949, “Lovesick Blues” was the country song of the year.

Between 1947 and 1949, Williams had already had hits on the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) label: “Move It on Over” "Move It on Over" (Williams)[Move It on Over] had been a number-four hit, “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” "I’m a Long Gone Daddy" (Williams)[Im a Long Gone Daddy] had reached number six, and “Honky-Tonkin’” "Honky-Tonkin’" (William)[Honky Tonkin] had made number fourteen; all were Williams’s own compositions. Already a star on the new Louisiana Hayride, Louisiana Hayride (radio program) broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana, Williams was ambitious. The Hayride, like The Grand Ole Opry, was a radio barn show with a live audience, and it had come to be regarded as the musical equivalent of a minor-league, or farm, team for the major-league Opry in Nashville.

With Williams’s new hit rising on the charts, officials of the Opry visited the Hayride and decided that Williams belonged on their show, even though he had a reputation in the music business for drinking and carousing. Tested since 1937 on radio and the honky-tonk circuit, he was a dynamic interpreter of his own songs, and he combined the influences of country stars Roy Acuff Acuff, Roy and Ernest Tubb into a haunting new synthesis of plaintive vocalizing and energetic, committed presentation.

When Williams appeared on the Saturday night Opry broadcast of June 11, 1949, to sing “Lovesick Blues” and had to do six encores, the Opry knew it had found a new sensation who would broadcast a tough style of hard, honky-tonk country across the United States and enhance its growing dominance of the country airwaves. From then through the time of his firing from the Opry in August, 1952, Williams had hit after hit, mostly from his own pen. Nearly all his records stayed in the top-ten country charts for weeks, and seven reached number one.

A phenomenon in sales and in live performances across the nation, Williams quickly put together a top-flight road band, the Drifting Cowboys Drifting Cowboys , that helped set the norm for modern country bands with its driving, jazz-and-blues-influenced style. Combining fiddle, steel guitar, lead electric guitar, and slap acoustic bass, the Drifting Cowboys became a band hard to beat either on the road or in the studio.

As Williams penned and sang his songs of heartbreak, despair, and loneliness, leavened with paeans to good times in the honky-tonks and celebrations of a working-class and Southern-rooted culture, he seemed unbeatable. His “overnight” success, though, had been hard won. He had paid his dues for years playing one-night stands, writing his songs, and refining his style. Born into rural poverty in 1923 near Mount Olive, Alabama, in the pine woods of the Deep South, he had early on learned from local musicians, including the black itinerant Rufus Payne. On Montgomery radio as early as 1937, Williams had traveled the small-time circuit for years before joining the Louisiana Hayride in 1948.

After he married Audrey Sheppard in 1944, Williams’s career took a more ambitious turn. An ambitious woman herself, Audrey spurred Williams to get his songs published by a major firm. She was lucky in bringing Williams to Nashville in 1946. That trip became the key to his future and stardom: It was on that trip that he met Fred Rose.

A longtime pop songwriter who had also written for cowboy film star Gene Autry in Hollywood, Rose turned to country music and came to Nashville in the early 1940’s to help set up the city’s first country music publishing company, Acuff-Rose Acuff-Rose[Acuff Rose] . Founded in 1942 by Rose and country star Roy Acuff, the firm came to symbolize the growing importance of the city as the center of the country music industry springing up around The Grand Ole Opry. The Opry, founded in the 1920’s, had come to dominate the airwaves and the barn-dance format with its cast of singing stars, instrumentalists, and dancers. The Opry was a dominant broadcast show on a clear-channel, fifty-thousand-watt station, and the program’s live venue, the cavernous Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, provided rural fans with a real show-business event for several hours each Saturday night.

Another factor in the growing power of country music was the formation of Broadcast Music, Incorporated Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI) in 1939 as a rival to the older American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). The older performing-rights organization (which acted to collect payments on live performances of songwriters’ and publishers’ copyrighted material) had run into a snag when proposing higher licensing fees for broadcasters in the late 1930’s. To counter ASCAP, some radio executives formed BMI, temporarily banned ASCAP songs (largely drawn from New York’s Tin Pan Alley stable), and set out to find new writing talent.

BMI collared white country and black rhythm-and-blues and blues talents. Thus, a new catalog of more regional music was formed, and until-then-neglected music began to pay for its creators. Acuff-Rose was part of this movement. Interested in signing raw talent, Fred Rose was duly impressed when Audrey Williams brought Hank to him in 1946.

Signing Williams to a writing contract, Rose soon pitched Williams’s songs to country singers and managed to get Hank onto the small New York Sterling label in 1946. Though his first few records did little in sales, his debut on the new West Coast MGM label brought results from 1947 on, leading inexorably to that June 11, 1949, debut on The Grand Ole Opry.

Significance

Williams’s success from the time of his Opry debut until his death on January 1, 1953, can be attributed to several factors. Williams’s greatest long-term influence beyond the world of country music stemmed from his songwriting skills. Though Fred Rose seems to have done some touching up of words and carefully to have supervised Williams’s recording sessions—sometimes adding his own piano to the mix—Williams was the creative genius who knew all the idioms of country song. Whether writing songs of unrequited love or songs celebrating honky-tonking and general good times, he crafted lyrics filled with telling images, laconic phrases, and sprightly repartee.

Williams’s lyrics etched the highs and lows of rural and working-class life. They were conveyed, moreover, both on recordings and in live performances with the emotional sincerity and true-to-life conviction that was the root of country music’s appeal and staying power. Songs such as “Mansion on the Hill,” “Honky-Tonkin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “The Blues Come Around (When the Sun Goes Down),” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya” became standards of country music. Train and prison songs such as “Pan American” and “Lonesome Whistle” (cowritten by Jimmie Davis) evoke landscapes and rural life in a way that few could equal.

Although some of Williams’s early songs “crossed over” into the pop field when they were covered by mainstream singers, it was only with songs such as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Half as Much,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Your Cheating Heart,” and “You Win Again,” recorded in 1951 and 1952, that Williams and Rose saw major pop music success. Williams himself rarely had any pop chart action; he was just too rural sounding. When Tony Bennett covered “Cold, Cold Heart” "Cold, Cold Heart" (Williams)[Cold, Cold Heart] in 1951 and saw it become a number-one pop hit and sell a million copies, however, things started to change. Indeed, they would never be the same again, either for Williams’s song catalog or for the country-music industry.

Country music could now consistently cross over and into the pop charts, and country songs performed by pop artists could bring great financial profit to country publishers. Acuff-Rose became a symbol of what could be done in spreading rural music to a wider public. In years to come, Nashville would find itself the envy of the older music centers.

Williams’s songs soon were being covered by the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford, Joni James, and Frankie Laine, all major pop singers of the era. Such crossover success helped spur the Nashville music industry in the late 1950’s and beyond to tailor its own recordings to a pop market by cutting out fiddles and steel guitars and mixing in strings, horns, and choruses, hallmarks of pop arrangement. The famous “Nashville Sound,” which sprang from the desire to beat pop record makers at their own game, helped make Nashville an even more important music center from the 1960’s onward.

Within the country music field itself, Williams’s other talents proved influential. His vocal style—alternately harsh and tender—was a classic country voice, nasal but quite flexible, with a range extending from quick falsetto leaps to low rasps and variable, melismatic ornamental flourishes. He could croon and shout, “worry” a word or phrase for expressive purposes, moan and semi-yodel, harden and soften his voice in and between phrases. Moreover, Williams sang mostly his own songs, which were in many cases rather thinly disguised voicings of the turbulence and emotional highs and lows of his own life, especially with regard to his tension-fraught marriage with Audrey. Thus, for his audiences, both on record and live, he sang about the life he lived.

Williams’s band was also a key factor in his success and influence. The Drifting Cowboys combined Western swing, jazz, and blues influences. Steel guitarist Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers performed outstanding “take-off breaks” between Williams’s verses (as in jazz, this kind of break does not stick closely to the melody line but spins off into improvisational flights). Williams used several electric lead-guitar players in the studio and on the road, and all were successful in working out new single-string lead solos. Zeke Turner and Sammy Pruett, in particular, developed a “dead-string” method of using wrist action to dampen strings to provide a percussive effect. Combined with Williams’s bass players’ acoustic slap bass, the resultant sound, especially in up-tempo numbers, was a precursor of the work of rockabilly guitarists such as Carl Perkins and was a sign of the increasingly rhythmic feel of country music in the 1950’s.

Sadly, Williams’s career declined rapidly in 1952. Afflicted by then with chronic alcoholism and recurring back problems, he began to take various drugs prescribed to ease his pain. While being chauffeured to a New Year’s Day show in Ohio, Williams died of heart failure on January 1, 1953. His style of singing and performing as well as his too-short life became legends. The artist who dies young with unfulfilled promise is an icon of music and literature, and after his death, Williams came to be regarded as a virtual patron saint of country music. Such is one part of Hank Williams’s legacy.

The other part endures in the songs he wrote, which represent the largest single catalog of continually performed and recorded country songs. This legacy—and much of his life—epitomizes a folk heritage and a “white blues” tradition. Like another great regional musician from neighboring Mississippi, Robert Johnson, who also burned himself out and died young, Williams stands as a towering influence on countless subsequent singers and songwriters who created from their roots and their hearts. Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program) "Lovesick Blues" (Friend)[Lovesick Blues (Friend)] Music;country Country music

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caress, Jay. Hank Williams: Country Music’s Tragic King. New York: Stein & Day, 1979. A good general biography with some attention to the music scene and songs. Index, illustrations, and general discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Escott, Colin, and Kira Florita. Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001. Coffee-table book compiling photographs and reproductions of practically every extant document related to Williams’s life, from his baby pictures to letters to his family to handwritten song lyrics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flippo, Chet. Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. A more gritty life and legend approach, but with Flippo’s creation of imaginary dialogues one is on dangerous ground. Revels too much in the unsavory side of things. Interesting as a supplementary account, but Flippo is really an outsider to the cultural contexts. Illustrated and indexed, but no discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hemphill, Paul. Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. New York: Viking, 2005. Novelist and nonfiction author Hemphill begins and ends this biography of Williams with autobiographical vignettes demonstrating the effect the singer had on the author’s life. By bookending his tale of Williams’s rural life with his own, Hemphill both expands and narrows the significance of his work. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koon, George William. Hank Williams: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. An excellent study of man and music. A balanced and informed biography, a good understanding of the country music idiom, and thoughtful discussion of the songs. A few illustrations, index, and a good and comprehensive general discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pleasants, Henry. The Great American Popular Singers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Has a chapter on Williams as well as others on country singers Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Sets Williams in an informative context. Good on vocal styles. Index, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Roger M. Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. Perhaps the best study overall, although Koon’s rivals it. Full biography, well researched, music and songs covered. No illustrations, but indexed. Good discography by premier country music discographer Bob Pinson.

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