Hank Williams is one of the most influential Country music singers in American History. It’s hard to believe his recording career was only six years long.
What happened to Hank Williams, the infamous country drifter? How did he die?
We took a drive down the roads of music history to find out.
The Story of Hank Williams
Hank Williams was an American Country singer born and raised in Alabama. Williams was eight years old when his mom handed him his first guitar in 1931. He learned to play guitar from local blues musician Rufus ‘Tee-Tot’ Payne.
Country musicians like Ernest Tubb and Jimmy Rodgers were also influential to his sound. Williams started his own band in the late 1930 and began playing local radio stations almost immediately.
The military medically disqualified Williams from serving during World War II. He suffered from a painful spinal condition called spina bifida. Several falls during his lifetime increased the chronic pain, which drove him to drink. Work was spotty for Williams during the early 40s, as his drinking tarnished his reputation.
Fortunately, things picked up when Williams married Audrey Sheppard in 1944. They worked together on his musical career. MGM signed Williams after hearing his 1946 single Honky Tonkin’. Move It on Over, the first MGM single released in 1947, climbed quickly into the top five US Country charts.
After his debut performance at The Grand Ole Opry, Hank Williams became a country music superstar. The audience loved him so much that he performed six encores.
All but one of his 31 singles landed in Billboard’s Top Country and Western charts. Although he only released two studio albums during his lifetime, his work has been released on dozens of compilations and live albums.
Hank Williams’ nickname is the King of Country Music, and he was one of the first to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. September 21st is the official “Hank Williams Day” in Alabama.
Hank Williams’ Best Known Songs
Hey, Good Lookin’
Hey, Good Lookin’ is one of the most popular songs by Hank Williams. Upbeat and bold, the sassy lyrics describe a man asking a woman if they can ‘cook something up’ together. William’s song is an adaptation of the Cole Porter musical number by the same name. No credit was given to Porter, however.
Williams apparently wrote the song while on a plane with fellow musicians Jimmy Dickens and Minnie Pearl. At first, Williams penned the song as a favor for Dickens. Instead of giving the piece to his friend, Williams kept it and recorded it one week later.
Hey, Good Looking ranked #1 in the country music charts upon its release. The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted the hit in 2001.
Your Cheatin’ Heart
Another #1 ranking Hank Williams tune is Your Cheatin’ Heart, released in 1953. It’s considered by many as a definitive country standard. The composition and lyrics herald three honored qualities of country music: authenticity, simplicity, and heartache. The lyrics describe the penance a cheater will face from living with a cheatin’ heart, riddled with guilt.
I Saw the Light
I Saw the Light is the underdog of Hank Williams’ best-known songs. Released in 1948, the single missed the charts. It’s didn’t step into its own until Wliiams’ fans started loving it as the closing of his concerts.
In time, I Saw the Light grew to become one of the best-known hymns in American culture. Country and gospel singers alike have covered the spiritual tune.
Hank Williams was inspired to write I Saw the Light after his mom drove him back to Mongomery after a gig. An inebriated Williams was in the back of the car. After seeing the lights from the airport, William’s mother exclaimed, “I just saw the light!” Those words sparked an intention to write a song about faith and redemption.
The 2016 Paramount feature film about Hank Williams used I Saw the Light as its title. Despite solid performances by Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, the film seemed to lack focus and was a flop.
Strangely, the director chose to bypass much about Hank William’s death, which is ironic. Concert-goers spontaneously sun I Saw the Light at what would have been his next gig had he not just passed.
So, How Did Hank Williams Die?
Hank Williams struggled with alcohol abuse throughout his adult life. Things got worse after he took a fall in 1951, reactivating painful back problems. He began abusing painkillers such as morphine and chloral hydrate.
His addiction resulted in the end of his marriage and his gigs at the Grand Ole Opry. He moved back in with his mother, gained weight, and continued the downward spiral.
That said, Hank had several gigs scheduled for 1952. He played throughout the summer and fall. Williams had two dates planned for the very end of the year, penned to be the comeback of his career.
Charles Carr drove Williams from Mobile, Alabama, to the gigs up in Ohio and West Virginia. A freshman in college, Carr took the job at a request made by his dad, who owned a taxi company. He could never have guessed what was coming.
A Fateful Drive
Carr picked up Williams in Mongomery and headed towards Birmingham. The weather was terrible. Rain turned into snow, thwarting William’s attempt to catch a plane in Knoxville. Carr took Williams to the Andrew Johnson hotel with plans to leave the following morning.
Williams was not feeling well. He called a doctor to his hotel, who gave him morphine for his hiccups and cough. When the record label called Carr a few hours later, Williams was taken to the car by hotel staff in a wheelchair.
Williams got in the car on his own but quickly fell asleep. Hours later, Williams got up to stretch his legs while the two were at a rest stop. The next time Carr stopped to get gas, Williams was dead.
According to the official autopsy, Hank Williams died of a heart attack most likely caused by the combination of booze, morphine, and chloral hydrate. Although controversy remains surrounding the details of his death, we know Williams died from heart failure.
Carr’s recounting of that fateful night has been hotly debated by hotel staff and various roadside witnesses. Regardless, Carr had nothing to do with his death. He did the best he could under the circumstances.
Who Are Hank Williams’ Children?
Hank Williams had two children. Randall Hank Williams, also known as Hank WIlliam Jr, was born in 1949. Raised by his mother Audrey after his father died, little Jr got plenty of visits from family friends.
Musicians like Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Merle Haggard taught him about music and his dad’s legacy. Hank Williams Jr was singling and recording singles by age 15.
Hank Williams Jr has since released over 50 albums and has won numerous Country music awards. His style started in the same vein as his father’s, steering towards a more Southern Rock twist in the 70s. He came into his own in the 80s, starting with his best-selling album The Pressure Is On in 1981.
Hank William’s second child, Jett Williams, was born five days after his death in 1953. Jett’s mother, Bobby Webb Jett, had a fling with Williams will he was getting a divorce. Bobby Jett split soon after the birth of her daughter, leaving little Jett Williams with her grandmother, who passed away two years later.
After being adopted and raised without knowledge of her family history for decades, Jett finally learned about Hank Williams in 1974.
After this, the battle for the Hank Williams estate began. Half-siblings Hank Jr. and Jett did not speak for years, as Jett fought for her share of the Williams’ estate. Long after Jett won the family feud in 1990, things simmered down.
Jett and Hank Jr. now function together to preserve their father’s legacy. They remain dedicated to keeping his music available with live releases, film licensing, and other business ventures.
Can I See the Car Where Hank Williams Died?
Yes! The 1952 baby blue Cadillac is on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Longtime Williams fan Cecil Jackson founded the museum. Jackson met hank Williams a couple of times as a young boy in the 40s.
He also saw Williams just a few days before he died. When Jackson worked at an auto body shop, it was his job to help tune up the baby blue Cadillac for the upcoming road trip. Jackson was shocked to hear that Williams died in that car just a few days later.
The Hank Williams museum opened in 1999, and Jackson’s family manages it. The large museum is home to an abundance of unique memorabilia, like William’s blue suede shoes and tailored suits. The museum is an excellent destination for any country music lover and music history buff.
A Troubled Man with Exquisite Talent
The exact details surrounding the death of Hank Williams may forever remain a mystery. We know he passed away in the back seat of his car, somewhere along a dark highway at night.
We know his heart gave out. Something his young driver will never forget. But was there anything, on that night, that anyone could have done differently to save his life?
Life is full of mystery, both wonderful and tragic. Maybe leaving some things left unknown in the death of Hank Williams makes sense. After all, he’d probably love to write a great song about it.