A work of effortless mastery, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” crystallizes plenty of the traits that have made Hank Williams’ recordings so enduring. It’s a traditional blues with a laconic honky-tonker’s tempo and easy, dancefloor-ready feel; Williams’ blue yodel is out in full force and it’s contrasted well with the hint of a rock and roll rumble. It’s hard to imagine, then, that this single was actually Williams’ semi-desperate attempt to follow up the massive popularity of “Lovesick Blues.”
Needless to say, it worked, bringing him back to the top of the country charts and in the realm of the massive 78 and 45 sales to which he had become accustomed. He did so by mimicking much of the structure and aesthetic of “Lovesick Blues,” but with an additional layer of quite morose poetry. Where “Lovesick Blues” wore its humor and self-deprecation on its sleeve, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” spoke to a much deeper kind of despair – one that ultimately finds the narrator hoping for his untimely demise in a freezing river.
After toying around with the title for a while, Williams finally finished the song during a fishing trip with songwriter Vic McAlpin; reportedly, McAlpin asked him if he was going to fish or watch the fish swim by – the source of the song’s first line, and its subsequent river theme. The lament was recorded by Williams alongside his road band in Nashville early in 1950, marking the first time that Williams had recorded with his own band instead of studio musicians in almost three years. They play with understated polish, sitting back while Williams and his vocal fireworks practically jump through the mic.
“Long Gone Lonesome Blues” was successful almost immediately, quelling any anxieties Williams and his label might have had about his ability to recreate the magic he’d tapped into so well in years prior. Instead, its massive appeal “set the table for the unprecedented success he would enjoy until his death,” as biographer Colin Escott put it – the roller coaster was fully set in motion, without even minor derailments, for better or worse. Still a favorite of any singer looking to flaunt their vocal prowess, the song also inspired Bruce Springsteen as he penned “The River”; listeners can hear that it has some of the same river imagery as Williams’ original composition.