In terms of the most important musicians of the modern era, Hank Williams has to rank somewhere near the top of that list. Emerging post-World War Two, this Alabama-born country boy would quickly become one of the biggest stars in the country, with his songs about loneliness, loyalty, love, loss, partying, and other themes, supported by his backing band The Drifting Cowboys. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Williams released some of the most influential music before his real-life issues including his alcoholism and spina bifida caught up with him, leading to his premature death on New Year’s Day 1953.
To honour the great godfather of country, we look at the 10 greatest works of “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” Hank Williams.
#10. Lonesome Whistle
We are immediately introduced to one of the main through-lines of Hank’s work: lonesomeness.
Co-written with Jimmie Davis, the song focuses on the isolationism of prison – a commonplace theme for country music, partly because of Williams’ work. Williams is the piece’s protagonist, describing his heartbreak of long days in a prison in Georgia, becoming disillusioned with the world. He calls himself: “A number not a name” and comments, “I’ll be locked here in this cell, ‘til my body’s just a shell, and my hair turns whiter than snow”, the latter part even more poignant with the context of Hank’s young death.
Williams references a train that drives by within earshot. Williams mimics the sound of the whistle in the word “Lonesome”, with the sadness of this noise an expression of Hank’s own sorrow. Rolling Stone’s Joseph Hudak said of the track: “The sound is so stark, so unsettling, that it’s easy to feel exactly what Williams was getting at in the performance: simple heartbreak.”
In a mental and physical prison, Williams expresses his loneliness, which resonated and bagged him a 14th consecutive top 10 single in 1951.
#9. Hey Good Lookin’
Although written in 20 minutes, Hey Good Lookin’ has become one of Hank Williams’ most famous works.
Based on a 1942 song by Cole Porter, Williams wrote this playful ditty that many have seen as a blueprint of sort for the rock’n’roll genre that would surface within a few years’ time, as seen by references to a “hot rod Ford” and “soda pop”.
Filled with flirtation and double entendre, almost in a comically-timely manner, as if it were a song from a Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie sketch. Yet it works with the cheesy nature making the track all the more endearing.
The track also features what appears to be self-deprecating humour with a line about owning a “two-dollar bill” (around $25 today). This uptempo number switches track from a flirtatious narrator to a loyal persona, with a pledge to become an official couple, offering to “throw [his] datebook over the fence”.
Footage of a live performance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour is one of few bits of video media that still exists of Williams on television.
The cheery song to Williams’ love interest has further cemented its legacy through a 2001 induction into the Grammy’s Hall Of Fame.