By early 1951, Hank Williams had taken five songs to Number One on the country charts. Among them, “Cold, Cold Heart” had also been a chart-topping pop hit for crooner Tony Bennett, who would later perform his stylized version of the tune on the Grand Ole Opry. For the follow-up to “Cold, Cold Heart” Williams would release “Howlin’ at the Moon,” a comical, cartoonish single that sees the singer taking on the characteristics of a hound dog. He’s “chasin’ rabbits, pullin’ out my hair and howlin’ at the moon,” all because he’s fallen so deeply in love. “Howlin'” is also notable for its B-side “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” which would become an even bigger hit and an enduring country standard.
On January 4th, 2003, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated the life and legacy of Hank Williams, who had died 50 years earlier, on New Year’s Day 1953. Two generations of Williams’ family performed on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium that night, the very same stage on which Hank Sr. had appeared as a Grand Ole Opry cast member, until he was fired in August 1952 after missing several performances on the radio show. Although they didn’t share the stage together, Hank Williams Jr. and his son Hank Williams III participated in the special Opry show, with the former joined by Little Jimmy Dickens, Vince Gill and the Whites to sing “I Saw the Light.”
Hank 3, who was 30 at the time, making him about eight months older than his grandfather was when he died, performed “Howlin’ at the Moon” with great hillbilly gusto. The rail-thin musician’s physical resemblance to his grandfather wasn’t the only notable similarity to the elder performer — or to Hank Jr., for that matter — as Hank 3 was an outspoken critic of his label Curb Records. In 1996, Curb spliced together a dozen recordings by Williams with additional vocals from his son and grandson and released the “Three Hanks” LP, Men With Broken Hearts. Three years later, Hank 3’s Risin’ Outlaw debut was released, but a strained relationship with the label and with Nashville’s music industry followed soon after. The schizophrenic nature of his musicianship — which has seen him in a country band, a country-punk outfit and a heavy-metal group simultaneously — didn’t seem to help matters, but it also didn’t hurt when it came to his live performances and the fervent following he built as a result.
After his performance of “Howlin’ at the Moon,” Williams tells the audience that it’s time to reinstate his grandfather as a Grand Ole Opry member. It’s a curious suggestion, given that current members of the Opry are required to perform there to retain their membership. He does, however, provide further evidence that the spirit of Hank Williams is alive and well at the Opry with a performance of “Thrown Out of the Bar,” a rockin’ honky-tonk tune that name-checks rebellious country icons David Allan Coe and George Jones. “Thrown Out…” was recorded in 2004 but wouldn’t surface until his 2006 LP, Straight to Hell, by which time Williams’ legal dispute with Curb had finally been settled. Released with a parental advisory sticker, and also available in a “clean” version, the double-LP featured some of Williams’ notorious live concert staples, including “Dick in Dixie” and his tribute to Appalachian dancer “D. Ray White.”
In 2008, Williams would thumb his nose at the same institution that fired his grandfather, recording the scathing “The Grand Ole Opry Ain’t So Grand” on his Damn Right, Rebel Proud LP. Curb Records continues to release LPs of previously recorded Hank 3 material (without his input), and since his split from the label he has been recording at home and releasing music on his own Hank 3 label, distributed by Megaforce. In 2013 he released two albums, A Fiendish Threat and Brothers of the 4×4, the latter of which debuted at Number 10 on the country chart.
The life of Hank Williams will come to the big screen in March with the release of I Saw the Light, starring Tom Hiddleston as the country legend. While Hank 3 has been critical of the film and the casting of the British actor in the lead role, his sister Holly Williams told Rolling Stone Country, “Tom really put his whole heart and soul into it. He worked so hard to embody everything about Hank, all of the nuances and who Hank really was. Tom put all his passion into his performance.”