During his short life, Hank Williams racked up 29 Top 10 Country & Western hits, including the Number Ones "Lovesick Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Moanin' the Blues," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." His best songs, as much a part of the American soundtrack as car engines and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," were instrumental in country music's rise in popularity and influenced scads of rock & rollers. In tracks like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" Williams expressed intense, personal emotions with country's traditional plainspoken directness, a then-revolutionary approach that has come to define the genre through the works of subsequent artists from George Jones and Willie Nelson to Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam. As a singer, Williams mastered a range of styles, from gospel to the pre-rockabilly playfulness of "Hey, Good Lookin'." In 1987 Williams became one of the earliest inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hiram King "Hank" Williams was born September 17, 1923, in a two-room sharecropper's shack in Mount Olive, Alabama. His father was shell-shocked from World War I and committed himself to a veterans' hospital when Hank was seven, leaving Williams' mother to support him and his sister. His mother played organ in the local Baptist church, where Hank sang in the choir, and she bought him a guitar for $3.50. When he was 11, Williams moved in with relatives in a railroad camp and began frequenting the Saturday-night dances, where he learned about country music and moonshine. The following year, he moved with his family to the larger town of Greenville and began learning blues songs from a black street singer named Rufe "Tee-Tot" Payne. Williams played on street corners with Tee-Tot, sold peanuts, and shined shoes.
In 1937 the family moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Hank won an amateur contest by performing his "W.P.A. Blues" and, dubbed the Singing Kid, he secured a twice-weekly radio show on local station WSFA. Soon after, he formed the Drifting Cowboys and began playing the Alabama roadhouse circuit, with his mother as booking agent and driver.
By December 1944, Williams had played nearly every roadhouse in Alabama and had married Audrey Mae Sheppard. Two years later, he signed a songwriting contract with Nashville publishers Acuff-Rose, and he recorded in Nashville on the small Sterling label. Soon after, he got a recording contract with newly formed MGM and began his successful collaboration with producer/arranger Fred Rose. That summer (1948), Williams joined the popular KWKH country-music radio program Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. His records started making the C&W charts, and he finally hit big with "Lovesick Blues," which became the Number One country record of 1949.
On June 11, 1949, Williams played at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time and received an unprecedented six encores. His fame grew along with his touring schedule of one-nighters across the country. Besides recording his bluesy country records, he also recorded gospel-influenced songs under the name Luke the Drifter. By 1952 his drinking had gotten out of hand, his health had deteriorated, and his marriage ended in divorce. Williams' chronic back problems resulted in his dependence on painkillers, and in August he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry because of frequent no-shows. Four months later, at 29, he died of a heart attack in the back of his Cadillac en route to a show in Canton, Ohio. (Many years later reports were issued that he actually died in a Knoxville, Tennessee, hotel room after excessive alcohol and drug consumption.)
After his death, Williams' records sold more than ever, and have continued to do so in the half-century since. His oft-covered catalog has produced hits for artists ranging from Fats Domino and John Fogerty's Blue Ridge Rangers to Ray Charles and B.J. Thomas. He's also been covered by Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett and Al Green, and he's inspired a new generation of alt-country artists like Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams. In the late Nineties Mercury Records began reissuing Williams' music on lavish CD sets. The 1998 box set The Complete Hank Williams won two Grammys. Three years later a Williams tribute album, Timeless, included covers by artists including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Beck and Williams' grandson Hank III. After a 2005 ruling that Williams' children — country star Hank Williams Jr. and singer Jett Williams — had sole ownership of some unearthed 1951 recordings Williams made for Nashville radio station WSM, two mammoth box sets came out as The Unreleased Recordings.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.