Hank Williams is a star equally remembered for his important contributions to music and his tragic lifestyle. With countless hit songs under his belt and a huge list of artists he’s inspired, it’s undeniable that Williams is not only one of the most important country artists of all time, but one of the most important musicians period. But success didn’t come easy for Williams, and his life was wrought with hardships, from endless spine pain to a dangerous love of the bottle. In many ways, his story is as tragic as it is inspiring.
Here are 25 facts about Hillbilly Shakespeare himself, Hank Williams.
1. The Golden Boy
35 of Hank Williams’ singles reached the Top 10 Billboard Country & Western charts. 11 of those reached number one. Most musicians can only dream of that sort of success!
2. Learning the Blues
Williams learned the guitar from African American blues musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who he would pay in money and food. Payne’s influence can be heard across Williams’ discography, especially his later recordings. Payne never saw the same level of success, however, and died penniless. His importance in Williams’ story means he will always be remembered, though.
3. Too Cool for School
Williams dropped out of school at the age of 16 to pursue his music career, a choice he probably never regretted.
4. From Tragedy Comes Greatness
Williams did not come from a particularly well-off family. His father worked for a lumber company and the two didn’t get along very well. His mother ran rooming houses. To make matters worse, Williams suffered from spina bifida as a kid, which opened him up to ridicule from the other kids.
5. Old Enough to Rock
Williams made his first appearance on the radio at 13 and his musical career only exploded from there. What were you doing at 13?
6. A More Cowboy-ish Name
The infamous country star wasn’t always named Hank Williams. His original name was Hiram King Williams, but he changed it to Hank, a portmanteau of his first and middle names. Hiram really doesn’t have that country sound, so it was probably for the best.
7. Who is Luke the Drifter?
A lesser-known alias of Williams’ was Luke the Drifter. This was a pen-name that he took up when he wanted to sing religious-themed songs. The Luke the Drifter character was a traveling gospel preacher, in contrast to Williams who was flawed in his own ways. The musical style was much different, and mostly spoken-word, so he tried to keep it on the down-low.
8. A Man of Many Names
Williams had a number of less-than-dignified nicknames as a kid, including Poots, Herky, and Harm. Where those came from exactly, I have no idea.
9. The Guitar Mystery
The story of how Williams got his first guitar is a bit up-in-the-air. His mother claimed to have bought it for him after selling peanuts, but there are also several other residents of his hometown who claimed to have bought it for the young star. Anyone got a lie detector around?
10. Life is Labor Enough
Due to his spina bifida, Williams suffered from constant back pain. He couldn’t perform any laborious tasks, and this constant pain was a big contribution to his substance abuse later in life. He even had an operation to try and relieve the pain, but it only made things worse. This would lead to some big problems throughout his life.
11. Television Debut
Williams first appeared on the TV on The Perry Como Show, a popular talk and variety show of the time. He performed “Hey Good Lookin’” with the host himself!
12. Big Winner
Williams won $15 from a local talent show for singing “WPA Blues,” his first original song, when he was 13 years old. This was the first time he was paid for his music.
13. Hall of Famer
Williams was one of the original three performers to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose.
14. Drifting Cowboys Drifted
Every star needs a support group, and Williams had his band The Drifting Cowboys. They formed when Williams was 13 and went through a number of lineup changes. The biggest change came with WWII, when all of his bandmates were drafted into the war. Williams had a hard time replacing them, as most of the people he brought in refused to work with him due to his alcoholism.
15. The Hank Williams Show
Williams played his music outside local radio station WSFA and managed to gain a lot of attention from locals because of it. The station gave him his own 15-minute, twice-weekly radio show at 13 with a weekly salary of $15. For a kid in the 1930s, that’s pretty freaking impressive.
16. Aaaand You’re Cancelled
The radio show built Williams’ fanbase, allowing him to go on tour. Unfortunately, the touring life introduced Williams to alcohol. He became an alcoholic and started showing up to his radio show drunk. They fired him in 1942 for just that reason.
17. Don’t Drink, Kid
Williams was urged to quit drinking by his idol, Roy Acuff, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Acuff told him, “You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.” Unfortunately, even hearing this from his idol wasn’t enough to get Williams off the booze. He continued to drink.
18. Old Smokey
The first song Williams learned to play was “On Top of Old Smokey,” which he learned from his grandmother. It stands today as one of his most beautiful recordings.
19. Radio Rewind
Williams returned to radio later in the 50s with a 15-minute show sponsored by Mother’s Best flour. On the show, he played his originals as well as covers, and even sang a little jingle to advertise Mother’s Best flour. The recordings were released in 2010 to rave reviews and a Grammy nomination.
20. First Love, First Wife
During a medicine show, Williams met his soon-to-be wife Audrey Sheppard. They married a year after meeting, but the marriage was initially declared illegal due to complications with her previous divorce. Perhaps even more interesting is the idea of a medicine show, which was used to hock phony “miracle cures” in between acts. Who knew?
21. Grand Ole Opry Reject
Williams was a huge fan of Grand Ole Opry, and auditioned for the show shortly after meeting Audrey. Unfortunately, they rejected him at first due to his substance abuse issues.
22. Like Father Like Son
Audrey and Williams had a son, Randall Hank Williams, famously known as Hank Williams Jr. Jr. has had an extremely successful country music career of his own, still performing regularly today.
23. Grand Ole Opry Sees the Light
Although the Opry rejected William as a regular performer at first, they eventually gave him another chance. Williams was extremely well received when he performed shows there. In fact, one show at the Opry had the audience cheer him on for six encores, a record that remains unbroken.
24. Happy Birthday, Mr. President
Much like his son, Williams was a vocal supporter of the Republican party. He endorsed Dwight D. Eisenhower during his run for President, even going as far as sending the president a personal telegram for his birthday. Sadly, Williams passed away only 19 days before seeing Eisenhower win the election.
25. The Doctor
Sadly, there was more to Williams’ death than his own personal flaws. The doctor that Williams hired to tour with him before his death turned out not to be a doctor at all. He was a fraud on parole for forgery. Ultimately, this was a major factor in Williams’ tragic end, as the doctor prescribed him medications that did not mix well with his drinking—which anyone who knew Williams would know was a terrible idea.