In the late spring of 1949, Hank Williams and his wife Audrey were expecting their first child. The singer had scored his first Number One single, “Lovesick Blues” and just a few weeks after Randall Hank Williams (a/k/a Hank Jr. or “Bocephus,” as his daddy called him) was born, Hank Sr. made his first-ever appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. That night he was introduced by Red Foley, and performed during two segments. Contrary to popular myth, there were no encores for Williams that night, but the crowd buzzed with great excitement as the Alabama-born entertainer played two of his most popular songs, “Lovesick Blues” and “Mind Your Own Business.”
A month later, Williams was hired as an Opry regular, touring the country with other Opry members and keeping his own rigorous performing and recording schedule – a tough task for anyone, let alone a problem drinker who had suffered from chronic pain for years.
By early 1952, Hank and Audrey were divorced (for a second time) and Williams was living in Nashville with singer Ray Price. A movie contract with MGM was cancelled and although he was continuing to record songs that would become legendary, such as “You Win Again” and “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” Williams’ erratic behavior became a source of constant worry and distress for those around him.
On August 9th, 1952, Williams was scheduled to appear on the Grand Ole Opry but missed the show. Opry manger Jim Denny fired him two days later. Four months later, Hank Williams died in the back of his Cadillac on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. He was 29 years old.
For years, Hank Williams Jr. dealt with the fallout from his parents’ divorce, his father’s death and the public’s perception of him as the son of the iconic singer. By 1979, Bocephus had honed his image as the rebel child with his own outlaw identity, a persona he carries with him to this day. Beginning with “Family Tradition,” he managed a string of platinum albums and hit singles that served as outspoken, self-referential anthems of Southern pride. His LP, Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, closed with a compelling story song he penned and recorded with his friend, fellow country renegade Waylon Jennings. “The Conversation” found Hank Jr. dispelling some of the mythology that had followed his father in death and certainly had an adverse effect on him as well. The song, which was re-released in 1983 and issued as a single, reached the Top Five and was captured for one of the earliest country-music videos at the time.
In spite of some of the less authentically country elements used to enhance the instrumentation in this early TV performance, “The Conversation” is basically just two old friends separating man from myth. Both artists beautifully pay tribute to one of the most important, influential songwriters of all time, in a song whose most heartbreaking line has to be, “Most folks don’t know they fired him from the Opry and that caused his greatest pain.”
The life of Hank Williams was depicted last year in the big-screen biopic, I Saw the Light, starring British actor Tom Hiddleston.