Perhaps Hank Williams’ most covered song, “Cold, Cold Heart” also brought the singer/songwriter huge success soon after it was released in early 1951. The plaintive ballad didn’t take long to become a cross-genre hit, in spite of its unabashedly folksy style: a young Tony Bennett released a plush, orchestral take on the tune the same year that nearly matched the original in reach and acclaim, prompting everyone from Louis Armstrong to (much later) Norah Jones to follow suit. Williams’ ode to his wife Audrey and her icy attitude towards him didn’t just become one of his most beloved releases – it secured his place in the American songbook.
The tune was a spin on a 1945 release by T. Texas Tyler called “You’ll Still Be In My Heart,” written by Ted West and Buddy Starcher (their publisher sued Acuff-Rose, the results were never made public, but they were awarded $2,500 in damages). Williams was, according to legend, inspired to riff on the tune after coming back from a tour and finding his wife Audrey in the hospital due to complications from an at-home abortion – and uninterested in his get-well gifts. Though the song was actually written about two months after Audrey’s abortion, according to Williams biographer Colin Escott, the incident is typically credited with inspiring the lament, so relatable to those who might feel like they can’t get anything right.
“Cold, Cold Heart” was recorded on December 20, 1950, and was – though it might be hard to believe now – initially released as a B-side because that’s where ballads were typically relegated at that point in the country music industry. The deceptively simple blues was stone-cold country, with its crossover potential well-shrouded in Williams’ mournful, rich singing. His power and charisma was at its peak at this point; he could have sung anything, and it probably would have hit – perhaps, though, not in the way that “Cold, Cold Heart” did.
It took “Cold, Cold Heart” only a few weeks to overtake its A-side, “Dear John,” on the country charts, where it would remain for the rest of 1951 – thanks in large part to the track’s success as a pop hit for Bennett (who had to be convinced to record it in the first place). It became the latest in a string of country hits co-opted by silky smooth pop singers, much to Williams’ chagrin. “These pop bands will play our hillbilly songs when they cain’t eat no other way,” he told an interviewer at the time. Nevertheless, the track and its crossover brought him to a whole new level of fame and influence – and has endured in the decades since as a favorite for artists of all stripes.