Top 10 Hank Williams Songs
In celebration of Hank’s 100th birthday, we’ve attempted to distill his mammoth legacy down to the ten most influential songs.
September 17, 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of Hank Williams’ birth. Though his life lasted for less than thirty years, the shadow he cast over the country music genre was exceptionally long. Many maintain, in fact, that he is the single most important figure in the history of country music. And it doesn’t stop there: did you know that Hank Williams is also regarded as an early pioneer of rock and roll? Discover more about this and other aspects of Hank’s legacy below as we celebrate the centenary of his birth with a list of Top 10 Hanks Williams Songs!
10. Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Hank Williams, though a native of Montgomery, Alabama, was also no stranger to the Louisiana Bayou. He first achieved widespread notoriety as a member of the Louisiana Hayride, a one-time rival to the Grand Ole Opry which originated in Shreveport. Later, he also toured as part of the wildly successful Hadacol Caravan, which had ties to the same state. (Hadacol was a patent medicine/vitamin supplement invented and promoted by an enterprising Louisiana state senator.) It was while riding on the Hadacol bus, listening to various bayou-born-and-bred members of the entourage talk about Creole and Cajun food – jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo, and the like – that he was inspired to write a song based on that same theme. The melody is essentially the same as “Grand Texas,” a traditional Cajun tune. (And according to some sources Williams had some help with the lyrics from hillbilly piano player Moon Mullican.) The speaker in the song is anticipating attending, following a journey via a pole-driven pirogue through the swampy backwaters of the Louisiana bayou, a grand Cajun feast in the company of his “chère amie,” Yvonne. The song, one of Hank Williams’ eleven number one hits, is also reportedly his most-recorded composition.
9. Long Gone Lonesome Blues
This song was Hank’s second number one hit as a recording artist – but it was his first number one hit as a songwriter. Cast in much the same vein as his earlier chart-topper “Lovesick Blues,” this juxtaposition of mournful lyrics sung to an up-tempo beat – accented with devil-may-care yodels as only Hank could deliver them – may have represented a calculated, formulaic attempt at recreating that earlier gold-strike after a string of successful follow-up hits had nevertheless failed to break through to the very top of the charts. If so, it worked. The title had been rattling around in Hank’s brain for a while without any further development until a fishing trip with a fellow songwriter which was intended as a diversion instead provided some crucial inspiration. Frustrated by Hank’s distractedness after they arrived at Kentucky Lake, his fishing partner, Vic McAlpin, wryly asked him “You come here to fish or watch the fish swim by?” “That’s the first line!” Williams exclaimed, having found the kick-start he needed to complete the rest of the song.
8. Your Cheatin’ Heart
Songwriting likely played a therapeutic role in Hank Williams’ life, a means of processing and verbalizing his deepest personal struggles and disappointments. If so, the level of artistry – and commercial success – attained would arguably make these some of the most productive self-therapy sessions in history. Hank’s tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Audrey, accounts for some of his most poignant and heart-piercing ballads, this one included. Written and recorded during the final months of his life, it was not released until after his death, on New Year’s Day, 1953, as the B-side to his single “Kaw-Liga.” Both songs, propelled by Williams’ mushrooming posthumous fame, become number one hits in 1953.
7. Lost Highway
Ironically, this song, which seems at first blush to be a thinly veiled autobiography of Hank Williams’ life and legacy, was neither penned by Williams nor was it numbered among his greatest commercial successes. (One could consider this the anthem of Hank’s “dark side,” even as “I Saw the Light” could be called the anthem of his “bright side.”) Written and first recorded in 1948 by blind singer-songwriter Leon Payne, Hank recorded and released his own version the following year. In retrospect, following Hank Williams’ untimely death at the age of 29 while strung out in the back seat of a car rolling down the road to yet another show, the lyrics take on an air which is both hauntingly prophetic with respect to Williams personally and also seems to set the stage for the hard-drinkin’, fast-livin’, (and often, like Hank, too-soon-dyin’) persona which went on to define the icons of the mass media, pop culture milieu that emerged from his wake. “I’m a rollin’ stone, all alone and lost. For a life of sin, I have paid the cost. When I pass by all the people say, ‘Just another guy on the Lost Highway.’ . . .”
6. Cold, Cold, Heart
Another song inspired by rocky (and icy) marital relations. After a hospitalized Audrey berated Hank and refused to kiss him during a visit, Hank returned home and bemoaned to his children’s babysitter that their mother had “a cold, cold heart.” That memorable phrase was subsequently crafted (in under an hour, according to some accounts) into a full song which went on to become one of Hank’s many number one hits. Recognized as a powerful classic almost instantly, artists well outside the country idiom have since recorded their own versions, including (most famously) crooner Tony Bennett, whose early cover was frequently summoned up on jukeboxes by none other than Hank himself while out on the road during the final eighteen months of his life.
5. Lovesick Blues
Recorded in two takes, on December 22, 1948, at tail end of a session at Herzog Studio, in Cincinnati, Ohio, this song never would have seen the light of day if Hank’s producer, Fred Rose, could have had his way. Rose first objected to the song itself, originally a jazzy Tin Pan Alley number from the early 1920s, as being too out-of-date and uncharacteristic of Hank’s other repertoire and general persona (although a “countrified” version had previously been cut by Rex Griffin). But Williams prevailed, confident that the enthusiastic responses his own live performances of the song had generated held forth the promise of great potential. After hearing the first take, Rose objected that it was too much “out of meter,” and insisted that it be redone. The second take was still not entirely to his satisfaction but was released anyway. Ironically, it became Hank Williams’ first number one hit as a recording artist, and it ultimately proved to be the biggest hit of his entire career, so much so that he was frequently thereafter introduced on stage as “The Lovesick Blues Boy,” or “Mr. Lovesick Blues.”
4. Move it on Over
Just as people continue to debate today what should or should not be legitimately labeled as “country” music, the lines which, in the middle of the twentieth century, delineated it from other genres (such as the emerging “rock and roll”) were likewise neither clearly discernible nor watertight. “Rock Around the Clock,” released by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1954, is generally regarded as being the first rock and roll recording. Hank Williams Jr., however (among others), asserts that his father has been robbed by history and that the honor rightfully belongs to Hank Williams Sr., on the basis of his self-penned “Move it On Over,” released seven years earlier, in 1947, a charge which is not easily refuted upon a comparative listening to both songs.
3. I Saw the Light
Though not a commercial success, Hank often closed his shows with this rousing country gospel number, and it has since become one of his most beloved (and most covered) songs. The inspiration for the song came late one night in January, 1947, as Hank’s mother, Lilly, was driving him and other band members back home to Montgomery, following a performance in Fort Deposit, Alabama. Williams, who was asleep in the back seat, was awakened by his mother’s announcement that they were nearly home. “I just saw the light,” she said, referring to the beacon at Dannelly Field Airport, on the outskirts of Montgomery. By the time they reached their destination, Hank had metaphorically transformed his mother’s simple declaration into the boisterous anthem of a backslidden sinner clinging to hope of redemption.
2. Hey, Good Lookin’
By early 1951 Hank Williams was an established musical success with a string of hit records credited to his name. His friend Little Jimmie Dickens, however, was still an up-and-comer in need of a hit record to really make his career take off. While the pair were touring together (in company with Minnie Pearl) Hank playfully offered one evening to pen a hit song on the spot for Dickens to record. It reportedly took “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” something like 15–20 minutes to come up with “Hey Good Lookin’,” but, as it turned out, the joke was on Little Jimmie Dickens: Williams, knowing instinctively that the song was too good to give away, preemptively recorded it for himself about a week later, resulting in yet another number one hit under his belt.
1. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
Released in 1949 as the B-side to the more upbeat “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” the poignant melancholy expressed in this song – mutually reinforced by the expressive lyrics, the mournful melody, the evocative styling of the instrumentalists, and, most of all, the haunting vocal delivery – has come to represent a summation of Hank’s entire musical legacy in the minds of many.
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