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  • King of the HillbilliesHank Williams
  • Bland Simpson (bio)

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Figure 1.

Little Jimmy Dickens said you could hear a pin drop when Hank was working. He said Hank just seemed to hypnotize people when he sang. Hank Williams, courtesy of Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hiram "Hank" Williams was born on a tenant farm in Mt. Olive, Alabama, in 1923. His daddy Lon was a Great War veteran—he owned a store, grew berries, engineered on a timber train. He went into a veterans hospital when Hank was just six, and he never came out. Lillie, Hank's mother, kept Hank by her on the seat of the church organ she played. Lillie pumped the wheezing, breathing bellows and the foursquare fundamentalist hymns poured forth and Hank learned music.

He lived near Montgomery. He worked on the streets shining shoes and selling peanuts and hawking newspapers. [End Page 29]

Your mornin' paper, sir. I'm the newsboy of the town.

And on the Montgomery streets he learned more music, raw bluesy music from the black street singer Rufe Payne everybody called Tee-Tot.

When Hank was twelve, he wrote a song and played it in a Montgomery amateur talent night:

I got a home in Montgomery, A place I like to stay. But I have to work for the WPA. I'm dissatisfied, I'm dissatisfied.

Hank won the contest. He won $15.

He took to hanging around roadhouse dance halls that sprang up with the mining camps of south Alabama. When he was twelve, he was drinking.

When Hank was thirteen, he put his own country-music band together. The next year he was singing and playing over WSFA, Montgomery. Three years later he quit high school and lit out for Texas to ride the rodeo. The broncos busted him instead—Hank hurt his back getting thrown from one of the wild horses. He got his band back together with him and played in a medicine show: Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys.

It was in Banks, Alabama, that a girl named Audrey Shepherd wandered up and signed on and became a Drifting Cowboy herself. She'd heard a song on the Barn Dance radio show out of Chicago, a song that was a big hit for the woman who sang it—Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers—a song called "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Here was her cowboy. They stopped at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama, a year later and found a justice of the peace who had a Bible and the right forms to fill out and on top of that was sober. Hank and Audrey got hitched right there on the spot.

Let's drink to that. Hank Williams was an alcoholic by the time he hit twenty. He always found time to drink, but it didn't hurt nothin', didn't get in the way—yet.

Just after the Second World War, Hank was in Nashville, Tennessee, writing tunes for Acuff-Rose. He got his contract by busting in on Fred Rose during Rose's traditional lunchtime Ping-Pong game at the WSN studios and singing him a half a dozen tunes before Rose could recover. There was something about Hank.

Something about the way he hunched over, gyrating slightly as he sang straight into a stand-up mike when he performed. Six-feet tall he stood, wearing a white hat and a dark bandana round his neck and a white suit with big eighth notes woven onto his lapels and four bars of music sewn into each sleeve and each of his pants legs. Little Jimmy Dickens said you could hear a pin drop when Hank was working. He said Hank just seemed to hypnotize people when he sang. Minnie [End Page 30] Pearl told the better half of the story: "He had a real animal magnetism. He destroyed the women in the audience."

Hank wanted to work radio, to work the Opry, to work concerts. By the late '40s he'd had it with honky-tonks and blood-bucket taverns, where...


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