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The First Country Superstar – Hank Williams

In the wake of Hank’s passing, he had four straight country No.1 records including, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, that topped he Billboard chart on 11 April 1953.

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Hank Williams photo: UMG Nashville
Photo courtesy of UMG Nashville

As Willie Nelson says, “Until Hank Williams came along it was just Bob Wills.” When Hank really did come along it was with the help of a white country performer who sang the Blues……oh, and he yodelled too.

Born in Georgia, by 1919 Emmett Miller was performing on the vaudeville circuit as a black face performer. In 1925 he moved to Asheville, the town from which Jimmie Rodgers would be discovered. Some historians have suggested that Miller might even have taught Jimmie to yodel. While living in Asheville he recorded the song that became his theme song, ‘Lovesick Blues’. He later recorded ‘Right or Wrong’ which became a Western Swing standard at the hands of Bob Wills, who was later quoted as saying Emmett Miller was one of his major influences.

Listen to the best of Hank Williams on Apple Music and Spotify.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

According to Hank Williams, Jr. “Without a doubt my father learned ‘Lovesick Blues’ somehow from Emmett Miller. It was either by record or he heard him perform it in person at a minstrel show.”

In 1949, Hank Williams cut ‘Lovesick Blues’, it was the record that turned the country star into a country superstar. He was 25 years old and hailed from Alabama, the son of a World War I veteran, who was in hospital for most of Hank’s early life.

The young Hiram King Williams had spina bifida as a child, he could not read or write and he had a limited vocabulary, but he was immensely talented. As a child he learned music from a local musician, Rufe Payne, in Greenville, the town where he grew up.

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By 18,  Hank had formed the Drifting Cowboys and was playing regularly on local radio in Montgomery, where he and his mother lived. Two years later, he met and married Audrey who would play bass in his band as well as taking over as his manager. In 1946, he cut his first records and in 1947 he recorded ‘Move It On Over’ which became his first country hit. ‘Lovesick Blues’ was No.1 on the Hillbilly chart, as the Billboard country chart was then known, for 16 weeks and when Hank played the Grand Ole Opry he was given six encores, he really had arrived.

There were a string of hits from 1949, through 1951 including the No.1, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’. Like some of the pre-war blues singers, Hank had a parallel career singing religious material, calling himself “Luke the Drifter”. Ill equipped as he was to be a country superstar,  Hank (who liked a drink) soon depended on the drink to see him through. By 1952, he and Audrey had separated, and Hank discovered drugs.

With his career in disarray Hank Williams died on New Years Day 1953 as a result of drugs and drink. The crowds at his funeral were enormous; a string of country stars turned out to honour the man dubbed the Father of Contemporary Country Music’.

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In the wake of Hank’s passing, he had four straight country No.1 records including the wonderful, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ that topped the Billboard chart on 11 April 1953.

With the formation of Chess Records at the start of the decade, the blues went to the city white country music somehow stayed put in the country. Country music came under the control of the rhinestone cowboys. Nashville was home to the Holy Grail, and the blues were written out of the official history of country music. It wasn’t until country music’s outlaws rode into town in the late 60s. As Waylon Jennings sang in 1974… “I don’t think Hank done it this way”

Explore our Hank Williams Artist Page.

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  1. Roy Jenner

    April 12, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Hank has been in my blood since 1953. There is, nor was, anyone like him. I read once years and years back that when Hank was christened the holy man made an error when physically recording his name and spelled Hiram with an extra ‘i’ – thus Hiriam. Just interesting information. Thank you.

    Roy Jenner

    • uDiscover

      April 13, 2016 at 9:01 am

      Roy, that is interesting, thanks for getting in touch

  2. Sarah Logan

    April 12, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Cant wait til the film comes out such a handsome man too and his music was and is still great my dad had Luke the Drifter I love “Mind your own business”!cos its so true taken far too soon we salute you Hank Williams xxx

  3. Ernie Richard

    April 12, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Hank Williams is my favorite singer, songwriter.I used to be a house painter with my Uncle’s and cousins and listened to Hank all the time on the radio in the 50s to this day. The Greatest.

    • Ernie Richard

      April 12, 2016 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks for the excellent history on Hank. Great posting!

      • uDiscover

        April 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

        Thanks, Ernie

  4. Clara

    May 1, 2016 at 2:51 am

    I would like to hear more about Hank’s spina bifida as a child, could that have helped to cause his death? I enjoy his talent and I also think his son is one of the greatest around, even beats his dad, as he didn’t let drugs & booze kill him!

  5. Adam Martin

    July 13, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    Hank did not do drugs! a fake doctor prescribed him things like chloral hydrate and that’s what did him in.

  6. Brad

    April 12, 2017 at 2:50 am

    Hankhad spina bifida occulta (so?), a milder form of spinabifida. I believe him taking a liking to the drink was due to the back pain he suffered due to the spinbifida he drank to numb the pain, because the medications were not that readily available back then so he drank to kill the pain. I’m a huge hank fan who also has spinabifida and my last name is Williams as well

  7. Brad Williams

    April 12, 2017 at 2:55 am

    Hank had spinabifida occulta, a mild form of spina bifida. I believe he took up drinking to numb the back pain due to the spinabifida, because the medications were not that readily available back in the day. I’m a huge hank fan that also has spinabifida..

  8. Dennis

    April 14, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Without a doubt, Hank was the father of country music. He set the stage for all the entertainers who came after him. An inspiration to all “would be” entertainers. RIP, Hank. And thanks for all your music and the singers who came along after.

  9. Tom

    July 28, 2017 at 1:46 am

    I think this article is a bit unfair in that Hank so called drug use while true is totally different from today’s culture of drug addiction by choice. The article did nention that Hank was born with spina bifida. In addition Hank suffered from malnutrition as a youngster. Numerous back injuries required him to have a spinal fusion shortly before his death. Hank did become addicted to pain killing drugs but clearly not by choice.

  10. George Vreeland Hill

    April 20, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Hank Williams is the first and only King of Country Music.

    George Vreeland Hill

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