Hank Williams, the legendary honky-tonk singer and songwriter, died on this day in 1953 in the backseat of a Cadillac, en route to a performance in Canton, Ohio. Born in Mount Olive, Alabama on September 17, 1923, Williams shaped the American musical landscape with his haunting, high lonesome voice and vivid lyrical depictions of love, loss, sin, and salvation. In Nick Tosches’ memorable words, “Hank’s music—Hank himself, really—was a mixture of whiskey, lamb’s blood, and grave dirt.”
The author of numerous hits, including classics such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Move It On Over,” and “Cold, Cold Heart,” Williams had a vast influence over singers as different as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. No history of American popular culture should be considered complete unless it recognizes his importance as both a performer and a songwriter.
For more on Williams' legacy and the tangled roots of country music, including the connections between Hank and the blackface minstrel singer Emmett Miller, check out my 2002 article “Hidden Country.” And click here to find out why the Grand Ole Opry should reinstate Hank.