Fifty-two years after his death at the age of 29, Hank Williams remains the colossus of country music, as well as a pivotal figure in pop and rock 'n' roll. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and into the Rock ∧ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His recording and songwriting career flourished for a mere seven years from 1946 until 1953. Yet during that period he created such classics as "Cold Cold Heart," "Mansion on the Hill," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I Saw the Light." (In contrast, Irving Berlin, the grand old man of 20th-century pop music and clearly Williams' equal in America's respect and affection, lived to be 100.) Born into poverty in southern Alabama, Hiram Williams was inspired to music by the area's churches, the Grand Ole Opry radio show and, particularly, by a black singer and guitar player named Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, who taught him the rudiments of his trade.
Although he was headstrong, Williams' life was shaped for both ill and good by three personalities as strong as his own: his domineering mother, Lillie; his fierce and ambitious first wife, Audrey; and his music publisher and lyrical collaborator, Fred Rose, the one man who knew what to do with all that raw talent. Never more than marginally healthy, Williams began drinking alcohol when he was still a kid, thereby establishing an addiction that would gnaw at his scrawny body and overactive mind until they both failed him one cold New Year's night as he lay in the back of his chauffeured, powder-blue Cadillac convertible speeding along a narrow, winding road somewhere in West Virginia. He was mythic to the end.
Paul Hemphill, who established his country music credentials with The Nashville Sound (1970), offers little that is new about Williams, either in incident or character revelation, in Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. But having grown up in Alabama at the time Williams was beginning to make a name for himself, Hemphill comes closer than most previous biographers to explaining the convoluted Southern culture that incubated Williams' genius and provided him his most appreciative audiences. Winnowing through a wealth of biographical material, Hemphill provides eyewitness-like accounts of Williams' daily struggles and triumphs, such as this note Rose sent in late 1947, reprimanding him for his profligate ways: "[My son] tells me you called this morning for more money, after me wiring you four hundred dollars just the day before yesterday. We have gone as far as we can go at this time and cannot send you any more. Hank, I have tried to be a friend of yours but you refuse to let me be one, and I feel that you are just using me for a good thing and this is where I quit." Fortunately for American music, Rose didn't quit, and the wily, tormented young man lived to write and sing another day.
Formerly country music editor of Billboard magazine, Nashville-based Edward Morris is a reporter for CMT.com.