Visit Hank Williams's Official CyberSite

Visit Hank Williams's Official CyberSite


Visit Hank Williams's Official Museum


He was christened Hiram Williams, but everyone called him Hank, everyone, that is, but Irene, the protective older sister who chose contemporary countryist Marty Stuart to preserve her brother's legacy. Just prior to her death, Irene Williams sold the no-slouch musician a considerable cache of never-before-viewed lyric sheets (including 29 unpublished songs), manuscripts, photographs, and memorabilia from the private shrine she'd created to honour Hiram, the defining figure of country music who'd died — drunk, stoned, and utterly alone — of a heart attack in the back seat of his brand-new baby-blue Cadillac at the obscenely young age of 29.

Stuart's treasury forms the foundation of Hank Williams:  Snapshots from the Lost Highway, a celebratory omnibus chronologically collated and minimally narrated by music-historian Colin Escott (Hank Williams:  A Biography, 1994) with the assistance of producer Kira Florita (The Complete Hank Williams Boxed Set, 1997). Gem-packed reminiscences and revelations reinforce the myth of the charismatic musician — an incurable womaniser — who revolutionised the shape, colour, and texture of popular music when he took country-and-western's down-home sensibility and sound decidedly uptown with lonesome, brokesome tunes the calibre of "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Jambalaya," "I Saw The Light," "Kaw-Liga," and "Cold, Cold Heart," to identify but a stellar few of the Alabamian's now-classic compositions.

Minnie Pearl, a vet of the Grand Ol' Opry set, recalls that Williams "had a real animal magnetism. He destroyed the women in the audience . . . Hank got this cataclysmic reaction. It was contagious." Mr. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" sang with a voice "that went through you like electricity. It sent shivers up your spine and made the hair rise on the back of your neck with the thrill."

Thanks to Snapshots from the Lost Highway, the thrill lives still, everywhere demonstrating that Hank put the hunk in fifties' honkytonk. His singular gift for merging the secular with the sacred is best evidenced in his trademark ability to transform audiences into congregations and popular songs into three-minute miracles of express transport. When the 25-year-old made his 1949 Grand Ol' Opry debut, he performed "Lovesick Blues" with such sorrow, veracity, and sultrified appeal that the audience hooted, howled, and brayed until he'd reprised it six times. His angular features, killer smile, and Nudie-suited hint of hip-swivel simply drove 'em wild in the aisles.

"This," one critic noted, "is why the boys around the studio, even the avowed haters of hillbilly music, get quiet and reverent when Hank looks like he might be even beginning to think of having another song idea. 'Shhh,' they say, 'That's Shakespeare. It used to be hillbilly, now it's Shakespeare.'"

The Hillbilly Shakespeare learned his chops from bluesman Rufus Payne (while shining shoes to pay the black axe-man) after his unpredictable mother bought the bespectacled beanpole his first guitar. That was right around the time the world-weary tween took to the bottle. A full-blown alcoholic by 20, Williams achieved superstardom after his wicked ways with shuffle-dustin' words and music came to the attention of Nashville's powerhouse songwriter and avuncular publisher Fred Rose, largely because of the determination of Williams's ambitious wife, Audrey Mae Sheppard, the striking blonde he'd met and married in 1944.

"Don't let Audrey pull the wool over your eyes by making you jealous," Rose advised country's bad boy. "I'm opening up my heart to you because I love you like my own son." Three months later, Audrey filed for divorce:  "Hank Williams my husband is 24 years of age. He has a violent and ungovernable temper. He drinks a great deal, and during the last month, he has been drunk most of the time. My nervous system has been upset and I am afraid to live with him any longer." In his reply, Hank argued that "Audrey has always been possessed of an ungovernable temper, and would fly into fits and rages."

Later, after Williams took up with Billie Jean Jones, the Louisiana Hayride's Tommy Hill recalled the way in which "Hank and Billie Jean left each other two or three times a day. I don't think he was thinking about getting back with Audrey . . . He acted like he loved the woman. I also seen him beat the hell out of her. I've seen him work her over and her work him over. That's what booze will do."

Drunk or sober, Williams delivered the lowdown on one high-living, hell-raising, heartbreaking, and breathtaking life writ large:  His storm-clouded childhood, turbulent teen years, and tumultuous adulthood — drugs, booze, and tempest-tossed affairs with women — all fuelled his fatalist notions concerning love, sex, and musical immortality. Country's Hillbilly Shakespeare lived those legends; now, for better or worse, they outlive him.

"Hank Williams:  The Hillbilly Shakespeare" was originally featured in The Globe and Mail's 8 December 2001 edition. © 2001-2008 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved. Additionally, it is affectionately dedicated to Williams's only equal, LNC.

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