The inspiration for the song which would really open Hank Williams’ music to the entire world was born in a hospital. Hank’s wife Audrey had been fighting illness for some time when she took a turn for the worse. Ultimately, she was confined to a hospital bed for several days. Lonely, as well as remorseful for some of the harsh words he and his wife had exchanged, Hank decided to make a peace offering. Without first consulting Audrey, Hank went shopping and bought her a mink coat. He then gathered up the children and happily headed down to the hospital. Hank felt sure that his expensive gift would tear down the wall that had come between the couple.
When they got there, it was immediately obvious that Audrey was happy to see the kids, but she didn’t even acknowledge Hank as he walked into the room. Even after he presented her with her first mink coat, she continued to ignore him. During the entire visit, Audrey never spoke to Hank, nor did she act as if she’d heard his apologies. She treated him as if he weren’t even there, and his expensive gift went completely unappreciated. Hank soon left the hospital room defeated and dejected.
As Hank rode home that day, he was filled with both anger and pain. He realized that a lot of what was wrong had been his fault…that his drinking was driving a deep wedge between them, but he thought he made it clear that he loved her even more than he loved his vices. In his mind he was willing to give up whatever it was that was keeping them apart, but to Hank, it seemed that his wife was unwilling to do anything that would end their feud.
The family housekeeper, whose first name also happened to be “Audrey,” Audrey Ragland, accompanied Hank and the kids to the hospital that day. Hank rarely drove, and on this particular day, Mrs. Ragland acted not only as the children’s nanny, but as a chauffeur too. While she was driving through Nashville on the way back from the hospital, she silently observed the brooding man sitting to her right. After several minutes, Mrs. Ragland finally asked Hank how he thought Mrs. Williams was doing. Looking over to her, his eyes sad and mournful, Hank replied “she’s got the coldest heart I’ve ever seen.” Then he turned his head back to watch the road, and seemed completely lost in thought. He said nothing more for the remainder of the trip.
That night, long after everyone else had gone to bed, Hank took a piece of paper and a pen and jotted down some of his random thoughts. As was often the case, his words quickly fell together into a song. Each of the new song’s lines was drawn from the most important relationship Hank had ever known. He must have realized as he wrote “Cold, Cold Heart” that he had no chance of ever melting Audrey’s anger or healing her heartache. Nevertheless, this expression of his desire to do so would become his personal favorite of the more than one hundred songs he wrote.
Hank Williams recorded and released “Cold, Cold Heart” during the early part of 1951. It debuted in Billboard March 17th and reached #1 on May 12th. Although “Cold, Cold Heart” held the top position for only a single week, Hank never had a release which endured so long on Billboard’s country charts.…ten and a half months! The tune also caught the attention of an up-and-coming pop singer who would go on to achieve legendary status.
Tony Bennett had noted with great interest Hank’s latest chart appearance. Bennett absolutely loved the country star’s new song, and felt that “Cold, Cold Heart” could easily be transformed into a classic piece for his own style. Tony had no problem convincing Columbia Records chief Mitch Miller for the green light to record the song, and Bennett’s release of “Cold, Cold Heart” effortlessly sailed into the #1 slot on Billboard’s pop chart, where it stayed for six weeks. Many historians credit this single with fully establishing Bennett as a star.
“Cold, Cold Heart” remains one of Tony’s three all-time biggest hits. Joining the parade, a host of other pop acts cut their own versions of the country song in 1951. Four of those recordings also landed on the chart. Hank Williams’ response to Tony Bennett’s version of “Cold, Cold Heart” was one of great satisfaction. He loved the lush string arrangement on it, and according to Jerry Rivers (a member of Hank’s band the “Drifting Cowboys,”) Hank would play Tony’s record constantly whenever he found it on a jukebox somewhere.
For years, country performers left Hank Williams’ original material alone. While many of the day’s best-selling songs were recorded by several different acts in direct response to chart movement by another act using the same song, most artists felt that Hank nailed his songs so well that no one else could cut another version that would be accepted. Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the first to not be intimidated by the Williams mystique. Jerry Lee had already scored a big hit with a rockabilly version of “You Win Again” in 1957, so it was with great anticipation that the singer recorded “Cold, Cold Heart.”
Lewis saw this 1961 Sun release rise to #22. It would be his final hit for the famed Memphis record label. The following year (1962) saw Ray Charles cover a total of five Hank Williams tunes (although not “Cold, Cold Heart”) for his highly-acclaimed landmark album “Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music” and its follow-up “Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Volume Two.” Two of the five (both from the second album) were issued as singles: “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Take These Chains From My Heart,” the latter reaching #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart, and both making the Top Ten of Billboard’s adult contemporary chart.
Since his death, Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” has remained one of country music’s most beloved songs. A multitude of people have learned its words and felt its message. Countless fans have come to know Hank Williams because of this classic. Others of Hank’s songs may have sold better upon initial release, but “Cold, Cold Heart” remains one of just a handful of true Williams classics. Lyrically, I personally rate it as the second greatest country song ever written (my top choice is Bill Anderson’s “City Lights”). “Cold, Cold Heart” is the one particular narrative which reveals not only what Hank wanted most, but how helpless he was in trying to obtain it. In that song, one finds the essence of Hank Williams displayed for all the world to see.