I thought we’d spend the rest of the summer throwing things way back to some of the legendary artists and songs of country music. There’s a line in Tim McGraw’s song “Things Change” that says, “He went down that lost highway, underneath that purple sky. A legend disappeared before his time.” I knew that he was talking about Hank Williams, but didn’t realize just how fitting the line is, because Hank had a song called “Lost Highway.” It’s not one of his biggest hits, but I’ve come to love it. The song is one of the few that he didn’t write, but it sure fits his life.
Hank Williams was born in 1923 in a small farming town in Alabama about 70 miles south of Montgomery. He was born with spina bifida, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain – a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. At 17, Hank put together a group called ‘Hank Williams’ Original Drifting Cowboys’ and they successfully auditioned for the manager of WSFS Radio in Montgomery, where they played regularly on the air. He met his first wife Audrey Williams during a traveling medicine show and they got married in December 1944 at an Alabama gas station.
Hank signed with MGM Records in 1947 and released “Move It on Over”, which became a huge country hit. After a few more moderate hits, in 1949 he released his version of “Lovesick Blues,” which stayed at number one on the Billboard charts over four consecutive months, crossing over to mainstream audiences and gaining him a place in the Grand Ole Opry. On June 11, 1949, Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. That year Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.)
From 1949 to 1950, Hank was country music’s top artist but soon, being a heavy drinker since his late teens, he began showing up for concerts drunk, and sometimes not showing up at all. In 1951, Audrey divorced him and the Grand Ole Opry suspended him from appearing at live shows. In October 1952 Hank married his second wife, 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones, who was no more successful than Audrey in protecting Hank from himself.
In the early morning of New Year’s Day 1953, on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio, Hank died in his sleep in the back seat of his Cadillac limousine at the age of 29. He had 11 number one hits in his career as well as many other top ten’s. On February 8, 1960, his star was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hank was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. This legendary artist has left an indelible mark on country music, with many artists saying he was an influence on their music.