Country singer, songwriter. Born Hiram Williams, on September 17, 1923, in Georgiana, Alabama. As a young boy, Williams joined the local church choir and eventually taught himself to play the guitar; his early musical influences were local African-American street performers. In 1937, Williams moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he made numerous guest appearances on an early morning radio show. With his newly formed band, Hank Williams and His Drifting Cowboys, he began performing at honky-tonks and square dances, before dropping out of high school at the age of 16.
With the onset of World War II, Williams temporarily shelved his music career in order to build ships for the U.S. Navy. In 1944, he reunited with the Drifting Cowboys; later that year, he married recent divorcee Audrey Mae Sheppard. The couple moved to Nashville in 1946, where Williams forged what would become a lifelong relationship with music publisher Fred Rose. Under the tutelage of Rose, Williams signed with MGM Records in 1947. His first single with the label, “Move It On Over” (1947), secured a place at No. 3 on the country charts.
In August 1948, Williams and the Drifting Cowboys debuted on the country music radio show The Louisiana Hayride. During his performance, Williams gave a show-stopping rendition of the standard “Lovesick Blues.” Originally recorded in the 1920s, Williams’ version of “Lovesick Blues” was released in 1949 and climbed the country charts to No. 1, where it remained for 16 consecutive weeks. On the strength of the song’s success, Williams was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and, in the summer of 1949, he became a permanent member. In addition to a rigorous touring schedule, Williams cohosted (with Audrey) a syndicated radio program called The Health and Happiness Show.
Before his untimely death, Williams released the hit songs “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’“ (both 1951), “Jambalaya” (1952) and “Your Cheatin' Heart” (1953). Unsettled by a chronic back condition, worsened by drug and alcohol abuse, Williams’ health began to deteriorate, culminating in his death (from a heart attack) on January 1, 1953. The 29-year-old left behind a legacy of over 100 classic country songs. His son, Hank Williams Jr., followed in his footsteps, becoming a popular country singer in the 1960s.
Called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Williams wrote simple melodies that mixed the sound of gospel, blues, and country music, while his lyrics evoked a powerful sense of emotion; he is often credited with introducing country music to the general public.
In 1961, Williams was the first artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (with Fred Rose and Jimmie Rodgers); in 1987, he was accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among his many posthumous honors were the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award (1973) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987).
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