Friday, February 15, 2019

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" – the Story of a Legend

Elvis Presley once called it the saddest song he'd ever heard. Hank Williams was certainly not a happy person when he wrote this song and recorded it in Cincinnati on August 30, 1949. He is still considered one of the greatest, if not the absolute greatest singer of the country scene and his songs are still covered by countless artists.

He got only 29 years old, had 35 singles in the top 10 of the Country & Western Best Seller Charts, 11 of them even at number 1. Even though he was a brilliant musician, he was not a very happy person all his life. Coming from very simple backgrounds and handicapped from birth by a malformation of the spine (spina bifida), he had always the feeling of being detached from the world and different from the people around him.

He felt at home in the world of music, the music that came from the radio and that he heard in church. At the age of eight, he started playing the guitar and first appeared on the radio at 13. He had learned playing the guitar, which he soon mastered perfectly, from the street musician Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, whom he had met in Georgina, Alabama, where the family had meanwhile moved to. Hank later called him his only teacher.

One year later he performed in talent shows and already had his own band – The Drifting Cowboys. For his musical career, he left school in 1939 and started working for the local radio station WSFA. He soon had his own show there, which lasted 15 minutes twice a week. But already at that time he drank and often appeared drunk to the broadcast dates, which is why the station quit him in August 1942.

His mother supported his musical career with all her might, drove him with his band to shows all over Alabama, which also drew the attention of the music scene in Nashville. But his constant back pain caused him to take pills on a massive scale and finally to drink alcohol, which was not advantageous to his reputation as a musician, which is why he was soon regarded everywhere as not very reliable.

His life took a decisive turn when he met Audrey Mae Sheppard in 1943, freshly divorced and mother of a young daughter. He taught her how to play bass and she joined his band. They got married in 1944 and on May 26, 1949 their son Hank Williams Jr. was born. But the marriage was in crisis again and again, because Audrey's relationship to Hank's mother was not uncomplicated. It seems that both women were often rivals in the fight for Hank's time and attention.

In 1946 Williams met the music publisher Fred Rose in Nashville who released Country & Western songs with his Acuff-Rose Company. Williams began writing songs for the singer Molly O'Day, which later leaded to a contract with Sterling Music and then with the newly formed MGM label. In 1947 he had his first top-10 hit "Move Over" which made it to number 4 in the charts. Even though the second hit "Honky Tonkin" in 1948 was only number 14, that year was the beginning of a breathtaking musical career for Hank.

But the success didn't get him well. His drug and alcohol consumption increased and he often appeared drunk on shows. Despite several arguments with Hank, Fred Rose stuck by him and made it possible for him to appear as a regular guest in the "Lousiana Hayride", a Saturday night show that a radio station in Shreveport regularly hosted.

The radio appearances increased Hank's popularity considerably and in 1949 he finally had his first number 1 hit in the Country & Western Charts with "Lovesick Blues". With it the success carousel accelerated enormously, fame and money gave him a freedom that the simple boy from the country could never have imagined. In the following years he wrote big hits like "Cold, Cold Heart", "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'" or "Lost Highway". During this time he also began to write religious songs under the pseudonym "Luke the Drifter".

His self-doubt, his inner conflict and unfortunately his dependence on morphine and alcohol increased with his success. This dependence even grew when his marriage with Audrey failed in 1952. He married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar in October of the same year and turned the wedding into a huge spectacle. His health and appearance deteriorated rapidly during this time. He lost a lot of hair and gained about 30 kilos.

On December 30, 1952, he collapsed before a concert in a hotel room in Knoxville, Tennessee. The doctor who examined him did not have any reservations and allowed him to travel to the planned New Year's concert in Canton, Ohio. As the weather did not permit a flight, he hired the student Charles Carr to drive him to Canton with Hank's blue Cadillac. Near Oak Hill, West Virginia, Carr was stopped at a police checkpoint and Hank was found lifeless in the back seat of the car. The cause of death was a heart attack, probably caused by excessive alcohol consumption along with the tablets taken.

His untimely death intensified the hype about his music and made him a legend. A whole series of his singles, which have risen to the charts, were only released after his death. His great role model Roy Acuff is said to have once told him: "Boy, your voice is worth millions, but you don't have brains for 10 cents". These millions are what his inheritance was worth, but also his musical talent has been passed on. His son Hank Williams Jr. became a very well-known country musician whose children Hank Williams III and Holy Williams also work as musicians.

The song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" best reflects his ever-present inner sadness. Released as the B-side of his hit "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" in November 1949, the song was not a chart hit, but it still became one of his most famous songs. For me it reflects the soul of this brilliant musician, who was a deeply sad man all his life despite his success.

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