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Hank Williams the Country Music Legend Who Lived Fast and Died Young

Hank Williams drew his last breath on January, 1 1953. At the age of twenty-nine, he died in the back of his own Cadillac, en route to a gig in Canton, Ohio. He may have known his own fate, as in his song, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. Cause of death was listed as severe heart attack – but years of hard living, alcohol and drug abuse, had obviously taken their toll on his young body.

The country music legend was born Hiram Hank Williams in Mount Olive West, Alabama – September 17, 1923. His parents were poor and for the majority of Hank’s childhood, his father suffered ill health from exposure to gas in World War 1. It is also rumored that Hank was afflicted with spina-bifida as a child; a condition whereas the spinal column hasn’t fused together, creating a gap in the spine. He had taken to shining shoes on street corners in an attempt to help support his family, and by the time he was seven years old, he was learning to play guitar from a black street musician named Tee-Tot.

A real interest in music came about when his mother bought him a guitar as a birthday present. By age thirteen, he had won a song-writing contest and at fourteen, formed his own band, The Drifting Cowboys. They began playing local dances, and Hank’s mother, Lillie drove them to gigs and the band soon became one of the most popular attractions in the region. Eventually the band auditioned for radio station WSFA, in Montgomery, Alabama. Before long, they were regulars at the station.

In 1944 Hank began his stormy relationship with Audrey Shepard. He began writing songs and reformed a new band, again called the Drifting Cowboys. It was during this time that he began living rough, and drinking became a hindrance. He often showed up drunk for performances, if he showed up at all.

Hank had drawn the attention of several Nashville producers. But by this time, he’d already built a reputation as a drinker, and they were leery of his unreliability. It wasn’t until 1946 that Hank made the trip to Tennessee to meet Fred Rose; co-founder of the music publishing company Acuff-Rose. It was also in ’46 that he auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry, but was turned down because his drunken reputation proceeded him.

First and foremost, Acuff-Rose was interested in Hank only as a writer. (In his lifetime, Hank had written over 300 songs) But by 1947, Rose signed Hank to MGM records to record “Move It On Over.” Later in the year, he was signed on as a regular member of the infamous Louisiana Hayride-a radio program broadcast across the south. Hank’s records were highly popular and selling like crazy – and in 1949 the Grand Ole Opry reconsidered, inviting Hank Williams to perform on their stage on June 11th. His performance was hugely successful, and he soon became a regular cast member.

For the next five years, Hank would enjoy a life of success. He continued to record and fast became one of the most popular artists in the country. He released such songs as Your Cheatin’ Heart, Jambalaya, and Cold, Cold Heart … all country music standards to this day. Hank is selling as many records now, as he did at the height of his career, fifty years ago.

With his huge success came more bouts of heavy drinking and continual arguments with his wife. In 1952, Audrey divorced Hank and gained a large settlement, as well as custody of their son, Hank Jr. He quickly retaliated by marrying the future Mrs. Johnny Horton – nineteen year old, Billie Jean Jones. He began using prescription drugs, the alcohol abuse became more severe, and Hank was soon missing more and more bookings. He was subsequently fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Soon, he was reduced to working local gigs – he had fallen back on his meagre beginnings.

The whirlwind career of Hank Williams had ended just a few short years after it began. He left behind millions of fans, young and old, and will always be an influence on American music. He has obviously set standards for all country artists who would follow him and was highly influential for such greats as Alan Jackson and country up-comer Danni Leigh.

In 1961, Hank was the first artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Hank Williams: September 17 1923 – January 1 1953.

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