Hank Williams 10 of the best

In his short life, the country star wrote some of the most lasting and influential songs in popular music and laid the foundations for rocknroll. Heres our selection of his finest moments

1. I Saw the Light

One of the most important artists in the history of recorded music, Hank Williams seemed to arrive fully formed into the post-second world war country-music landscape. But the Alabama native had spent years honing his craft. By the time he made his first records, for the Sterling label in 1947, Williams had extensively toured the south yet those releases failed to garner much attention. One song, Honky Tonkin, had given Sterlings A&R consultant, Fred Rose, a sense that Williams had something special: Rose had just set up a music-publishing company with his friend, Nashville stalwart Roy Acuff, and, after signing Williams to the Acuff-Rose roster, brokered a deal for the singer-songwriter with a new label established by film studio MGM.

The first MGM session didnt bring Williams his breakthrough hit, but with Move It On Over he laid down a valuable marker, hinting at how country, when mixed with blues, would soon evolve into rocknroll. That days work also yielded I Saw the Light. In an era where pop songwriters were still for the most part reporters, standing at a distance from their subject and describing it for the listener, Williams took the lessons hed learned as a child from a black street musician, Rufus Tee-Tot Payne, back home in Montgomery, and wrote a very personal piece of blues-infused gospel music. The idea for the song came from a late-night ride back from a gig, with the driver his domineering mother, Lillie shouting to wake him because shed seen the light at the nearby airfield, so knew they were just about home.

Video: I Saw the Light

2. Lovesick Blues

Infamously recorded against Fred Roses wishes, something of a mystery to the players who performed on the session, and the subject of a lawsuit after it emerged that what Williams had led Rose to believe was an original song turned out to be a 1920s show tune, Lovesick Blues had an inauspicious birth. But it was the making of Hank Williams, its weird structure the verses are choruses, theres more than one middle-eight, the intro was copped from another song entirely and his Jimmie Rodgers-like yodelling turning it from a novelty to a classic that topped charts for months after its release.

Williams had been diagnosed in childhood with a spinal deformity, and a horse-riding accident in his teens left him in constant pain. Alcohol became his primary medicine, and those long drives in cramped cars through pre-interstate America, added to crippling shyness and stage fright, compounded the problem. Long before he hit the big time, Williams was a full-blown alcoholic. His reputation preceded him, to the degree that the Grand Ole Opry the Nashville-based radio show that effectively determined who became a country star, and how long they remained at the top had refused to book him. On 18 June 1949, Williams played the song on stage at the shows Ryman Auditorium venue, and the raw promise Rose had seen just months earlier was transformed overnight into the stuff of legend.

The singer and the song Hank Williams Photograph: Supplied

3. Lost Highway

Williams reputation today rests, in part, on his status as the artist who cemented the notion that the singer and the song had to be indivisible if the effect on the listener was to have sufficient resonance and depth. Yet Williams was also a fine interpreter of others songs, so much so that Lost Highway, written by Leon I Love You Because Payne, is often mistaken for a Williams original. The songs protagonist seems to have ambled straight out of the dustbowl, an everyman doomed by luckless love to roam, rootless and alone, in constant search of redemptive purpose. Williams own struggle to reconcile the sacred and the profane certainly helped him wear Paynes song as if it were one of Nudie Cohns trademark suits, but its his voice cracked, careworn but never tired that makes this the definitive reading of an all-time classic, and a high point in a career that had more than its share.

4. Im So Lonesome I Could Cry

Williams has been hailed as the Hillbilly Shakespeare, and the epithet fits in more ways than one. The idea of a largely self-taught, working-class genius clearly was to prove so unsettling to certain cultural gatekeepers that conspiracies of hidden helpers powering the art along are advanced as the only rational explanation.

Even in as singular a body of work as Williamss, Im So Lonesome… is a shock. The idea of narrative is abandoned for a series of bleak visions of desperate, aching loneliness, almost all involving sights from nature a train passes through, but the only human soul we sense in this desolate landscape is the writer. It isnt until the penultimate line that we know for certain that this is a song about missing a particular person, rather than an examination of loneliness and isolation in the round: and even then its never made clear who that might be (a lover, presumably; but it could be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend), nor why theyve gone, nor whether theres a realistic expectation that theyll ever come back. Yet, more than anything in the lyric, Williams taut, resilient performance compels because you can hear the efforts hes making to keep alive the faintest hope that the situation might yet be resolved.

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5. Why Dont You Love Me

More than anyone who came before him and in a way that would become de rigueur for every singer-songwriter worth their salt in the decades to follow Williams was adept at mining his real-life travails to unearth the raw material he would carve into masterpieces. His tempestuous relationship with Audrey Sheppard began in 1943: the couple were married a year later, in a petrol station, just days after Audreys divorce from her first marriage came through. She became his manager and brokered Williams first meeting with Fred Rose: but her insistence on appearing on stage and on record with her husband caused tensions which his dependence on alcohol only worsened.

Among the many songs that lay bare the pain and heartbreak of a love thats falling apart, Williams also wrote just as vividly about the kinds of domestic storms that most folks could manage to weather. Why Dont You Love Me is firmly in the latter camp, the tone playful, the song written from the perspective of the husband attempting to use jocularity to dig himself out of an argument he knows he was wrong to pick to start with (My hairs still curly and my eyes are still blue / Why dont you love me like you used to do?). There is a real power here a sense that a determination to find something to laugh about, even in the midst of crisis, can help keep two people from tearing each other to pieces. Williams is rightly lauded for his bleak songs of irreparable heartbreak and irretrievable loss, but he was just as brilliant when writing about the times where the darkness hadnt yet completely edged out the light.

The 1950 session is also notable for marking the first time on record that Williams was able to record with the majority of his regular touring group, the Drifting Cowboys: hitherto, hed been paired with session musicians on his records. Fred Rose often encouraged the Drifting Cowboys steel-guitar player, Don Helms, to play the highest notes possible, partly to help the records cut through the AM radio static and compensate for the limited fidelity most listeners would get from their radio sets. Helmss high, lonesome playing, and to an only slightly lesser extent Jerry Rivers fiddle, became as defining features of the remainder of Williams output as their leaders voice and writing.

Hank Williams and Don Helms (R) Photograph: GAB Archives / Redferns/Redferns

6. Everythings Okay

With his records selling by the bucketload, Williams had the power to call his own shots, and he embarked on a series of recordings of talking blues, cautionary tales and verse-form morality plays set to music. MGM, wary of damaging the powerful Williams brand, agreed to release them as long as they were billed to an alias, so that jukebox owners and those putting their cents in the slot on expectation of hearing the next Williams hit wouldnt end up getting an unexpected three-minute browbeating of their dissolute ways.

Williams would sometimes refer to Luke the Drifter as my half brother, and there was no real secret about his real-life identity: after his early radio stints in Alabama, his residency on the Louisiana Hayride, and the expanded exposure brought by the Grand Ole Opry, Williams speaking voice was as familiar and distinctive as his singing voice. But the sermonising and the finger-wagging had selective appeal: for every record Luke the Drifter sold, Williams shifted dozens.

Everythings Okay shows that Williams was on to something with Luke, even if the numbers didnt back him up. There is considerable humour in the song and Williams deadpan delivery milks the material for every last chuckle and wry smile. But the songs real intentions are to offer something deeper and far more substantial.

True, some of the things Uncle Bill is facing are in there as jokes my ma-in-law just moved in to stay; the preachers comin Sunday, to spend the day but they are heavily outnumbered by the biting problems many of Williams rural fan base would know all too well: The weevils got the corn and the rain rotted the hay; the mortgage is due, and I cant pay; were gonna have a new baby bout the first of May. In the hands of an outsider, it would have come across as the songwriter laughing at the poor and their delusions. But Williams knew his people, and understood their lives: in his gentle, perceptive care, this story made-up, yet consisting entirely of truths becomes a hymn to the heroic stoicism of those able to do nothing but keep on keeping on.

7. Cold, Cold Heart

The dualities embodied in Williams are perhaps nowhere more inextricably intertwined than in Cold, Cold Heart. Audrey was in hospital: the couple had been rowing, each suspecting the other of infidelity, Williams drinking turning every conversation into a potential battleground. He visited with gifts to try to make amends, and she threw them and him out. It requires courage, and perhaps a degree of clinical detachment, to turn an episode like that into a song not to mention a particular mentality to describe it as among his favourite pieces of his own work. Tony Bennett covered it, to considerable commercial success, within weeks of its release: bandmates recall Williams delightedly playing that version any time they found it on the juke box in a diner or bar.

However, whats better than the original version is what appears to be its first public performance, recorded in January 1951, and available on a box set released in 2009 called Hank Williams Revealed.

Williams and the Drifting Cowboys were under contract to perform every weekday during 1951 on a 15-minute breakfast show broadcast by the radio station WSM, and sponsored by the Mothers Best flour company. When the band were on the road, pre-recorded shows were broadcast: a cache of 16-inch acetates containing 72 of these shows came to light when WSM was clearing out its archives and, after a legal battle, were released in the 2000s. The clarity of the recordings is often better than on Williams MGM releases, and the relaxed and informal nature of the sessions allows for some startling moments.

Hank Williams with his wife and manager Audrey in 1950. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

8. I Cant Help It (If Im Still In Love With You)

The truth and the tragedy of Williams and Audreys relationship was that they loved each other despite the traits each possessed which prevented them from being able to sustain their happiness. Lycrecia, Audreys daughter from her first marriage, but who bridles at the term stepdaughter By law thats what I am, she said in a 2008 interview, I realise that. But not really. He was my father in every sense of the word. doubts that the details in songs Williams is supposed to have written about himself and Audrey were real. But, as so often, the broader truths are unmistakable.

The song grew from the opening line: Today I passed you on the street / And my heart fell at your feet. Even from a writer as sparing and economical as Williams, its a marvel: the subject is the briefest of moments, as former lovers brush against one another while walking in different directions. Whether or not that encounter happened as it is portrayed couldnt matter any less: whats clear is that the emotions the song describes are undoubtedly the ones Williams felt for Audrey.

9. Ramblin Man

For all that his catalogue is full up to that Stetson brim with sad songs, Williams only released one record written entirely in a minor key. On its own, that might have been enough to make Ramblin Man stand out but there is an otherworldly weirdness to the track that ensures it delivers and retains a unique power and potency. Originally recorded and released as a Luke the Drifter track, it was reissued posthumously as a Hank Williams single the only time that happened. It is easy to hear why, as Ramblin Man fits better in Williams evocative discography than the Luke the Drifter canon.

In some ways its a companion piece to Lost Highway a tale of a man compelled to stalk the margins by powers outwith his control, or even perhaps his comprehension. The narrator of the song clearly wants to find peace and a place to call home, but a force he cant resist compels him to keep moving on. The final stanza, which imagines a response to the characters inevitable death, certainly acquired more power once Williams had passed away: but this would still sound spooked and unsettling even if he was still alive today.

10. Your Cheatin Heart

1951 had seen Williams become countrys first superstar, but his success was achieved at unsustainable personal cost. Records are incomplete but it appears he played around 100 gigs, in addition to his weekly commitment to appear in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry most Saturdays, and the daily Mothers Best breakfast shows on WSM. Six recording sessions produced 21 tracks; he and Audrey opened a shop in Nashville; he signed a film deal (though never made any films), and in June was honoured by his home town with a Montgomery Hank Williams Homecoming Day.

In November, he had an accident while hunting with Jerry Rivers that further aggravated his back: in December he underwent surgery. Unable to fulfil commitments for dates around new year, he recorded an apology that Audrey was to play to audiences. Knowing he was at home, likely had been drinking, and therefore keen to avoid him, Audrey slipped in to the house to pick up some clothes on her way to the shows: Williams had a gun, and fired four times. Audrey would later say she did not think he had fired at her, but it proved the final straw. The couple had gone through divorce proceedings in 1948, but made up; this time, Audrey had had enough. The divorce was finalised on 10 July: the following day he recorded the caustic, resigned, bitter You Win Again.

By the middle of 1952, Williams had ended a relationship with a woman who would bear a daughter, Jett, he would not live to see; and begun another with Billie Jean Eshliman. He would marry her in the October, perhaps friends have since suggested less because of his feelings for her than to send a message to Audrey. (In what must have been a deliberate echo of his 1949 hit, Wedding Bells, he invited Audrey to the ceremony: she did not attend.) The Opry sacked him after repeated no-shows and drunkenness; the attentions of a bogus doctor precipitated further decline.

Your Cheatin Heart perhaps the song that best defines the Hank Williams sound and style, and a piece of writing right up there with the greatest in-song evocations of love, loss, betrayal and heartbreak was apparently the result of a conversation between Williams and Billie Jean during a car ride from Nashville to Shreveport, where the couple were going to announce their marriage plans to her parents. He was lying on the floor, racked with pain; she had asked about his previous marriage: he described Audrey as a cheatin heart, quickly realised the writerly potential in the idea, and dictated the song to Billie Jean one of 14 songs that she says poured out of him that day while the car sped along.

According to Helms, after a quick rehearsal of the introduction, the band recorded the song in a single take the one and only time it was ever performed by them. Helms never saw Williams again. Williams died in the back seat of a car, on his way from Knoxville to Ohio, for a gig scheduled to take place on 1 January 1953, aged only 29. His earliest records are now 70 years old: his legacy and legend will last as long as recorded music.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/aug/30/hank-williams-10-of-the-best