Had he not succumbed to a combination of heart failure and painkillers on January 1, 1953, Hank Williams would have turned 88 years old today. Yet the fact that he died at the tragically young age of 29 doesn't diminish the indelible imprint that he left not only on the world of country music, but on roots, rock, gospel and all genres in between.
Williams arose from humble beginnings, in the immediate post-depression squalor of the American South, and became one of the greatest songwriters this nation has ever known, penning such enduring classics as "Jambalaya (On the bayou)," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Lovesick Blues," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Move It On Over," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and countless others that are still sung now because they remain every bit as contemporary as when Williams himself recorded them more than 60 years ago. Considering the number of artists who have integrated his songs into their own set lists -- Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Armstrong, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones and Isaac Hayes, being but a few -- it's obvious why Williams' legacy lives on.
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To those unaware, Williams' enduring influence might seem somewhat inexplicable. After all, his gawky demeanor, hillbilly vocals, addiction to alcohol and painkillers and the fact that his death preceded the modern rock 'n' roll era by a good half decade would seem to discount any impact at all. Yet, despite his enigmatic persona, Williams is universally recognized as a prophet and pioneer. With his backing band the Drifting Cowboys, he set a precedent by creating a popular country combo, just as assuredly as Buddy Holly did with his self-contained rock 'n' roll band, the Crickets. He also originated one of the very first musical concepts when he recorded a series of religious-themed tracks under the alias of Luke the Drifter. In the process, he garnered a steadfast following among African American listeners that led to one of the first instances of a Country music interracial crossovers.
Williams later wooed the Grand Ole Opry, and although his bid to join was rejected initially, when he made his debut on June 11, 1949, he received a total of six encores, the first artist to be called back as many times in succession. His radio shows and ongoing on-air appearances made him of the country's first media sensations as well as a staple of the airwaves. And indeed, by the time of his death, Williams was a star of epic proportions. The fact that he was able to accomplish so much in little more than the six years that stretch from his first recording sessions to the time of his death serves as testimony to both his genius and his prolific prowess. He would boast eleven number one hits over the course of his career and countless other tunes that reached the top ten. No wonder that he became the greatest hit maker of the 1940s, a feat that he could have equally duplicated in the '50s, given the fact that so many artists of that decade covered his songs early on in their own careers. The fact that he died so young and under such unlikely circumstances (he gave up the ghost alone and in the back seat of a car on the way to a concert) only elevates his legend, putting him in the same league of James Dean, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and Janis Joplin, stars who passed on prematurely and left beautiful corpses, never to fulfill their full potential.
Today, Williams' music is as alive as ever and his presence looms large in the countless reissues of his recordings and newly unearthed archival material, the latest of which, The Legend Begins and The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus!, are must-have acquisitions if for no other reason than for their wealth of rarities. His songs are still played nightly in countless concerts around the world, a credit to their enduring appeal. Likewise, his inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Recording Academy Hall of Fame, his ranking by Country Music Television as the second greatest country singer of all time (he came in just after Johnny Cash), and win of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize testify to his incredible accomplishments and both his impact and influence on American popular culture.
Happily, Williams is served well by his offspring, son Hank Williams Jr. and grandson Hank III, both of whom carry on his rowdy, rebellious reputation. Hank himself would have been a senior citizen by now, but we suspect that age wouldn't have tempered him a bit.