Hank Williams 90th Birthday Tribute
On September 17, 1923, Hank Williams, country music’s most significant star, was born in Butler County, Alabama. Williams, who never learned to read music and based his compositions on storytelling, was a country music superstar by the time he was 25 and died of a drug and overdose when he was 29. In his short life, he managed to write the most compelling and memorable country hits that are now considered classics. On what would have been his 90th birthday, we remember the life and music of Hank Williams with a little help from local singer and life-long Hank admirer, Judith Avers.
Hank Williams is the quintessential country musician. If you think of the roots of the country genre, you think of Hank’s confident, achey voice. Avers says “It’s a very difficult thing to sound like a tough guy and still be yodeling,” but Williams could pull it off. “He sounded so free.”
Williams had one teacher, blues musician Rufus Payne. Payne was a street musician from Greenville, Alabama, and Williams would pay for music lessons in change. Payne is the one that helped Hank fuse his blues, hillbilly, and folk into the Hank Williams music we know today.
From a very young age, Hank Williams wanted to be a musician. He sang gospel and shape note singing as a child, and as he got older he got a guitar, although how he got that guitar is still debated today. Hiriam is the name on Williams’ birth certificate, but he went by Hank because it sounded more “country”. His mother had an overbearing “stage mom” relationship with him, and his future wife had a similar attitude.
Williams wasn’t the first country star, although he was part of the first era of country musicians. He was inspired by a few country musicians at first, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican, and Roy Acuff, but soon developed his own style. He called songs like “Tear In My Beer” or “Hey Good Lookin’” his “bologna songs”, and complained that “the industry would slice them up like bologna.”
“He died young. It’s sad to say, but everybody loves a legend,” Avers says, “and he just became one the second he died at 29. Then his songs got sealed in the vault of coolness, and they’re still there.” The legendary Hank Williams died of hemorrhaging in the heart and neck as a result of a combination of alcohol, chloral hydrate, and morphine. Hawshank Hawkins and other musicians sang “I Saw The Light” as tribute for him at a concert he was supposed to play at that night.