Born in rural Mount Olive, Alabama, country legend Hank Williams came from extremely humble beginnings and experienced hardship and loss from a very young age. Growing up in the ’20s and ’30s, Williams was not only a product of a poverty-stricken southern region, but a post-WWI reality eventually hardened even more-so by The Great Depression. Williams’ own bout with lifelong illness shaped the overall essence of his music. Battling constant personal demons, his songs ranged everywhere from honky tonk danceables and drinking songs to gospel-tinged hymns and redemption confessionals. His classic country sound of the ’40s and ’50s would go on to bring the modern country genre into a commercialized success.
His own son, Hank Williams, Jr., from his marriage to manager Audrey Sheppard, would continue his legacy and write hits of his own while also recording many of his father’s works. Read on for the stories behind one of country music’s biggest names ever, Hank Williams.
12. Honky Tonkin’
An early release by Hank Williams, ‘Honky Tonkin” is an early honky tonk country music classic. Featuring sawing violin and steel guitar, Williams sings about enjoying the nightlife with his one and only. With a little outlaw in his songwriting before “outlaw country” ever became a subgenre, original lyrics to the song mentioned getting his hands on “a quart of whiskey” while on his way to the fair, but producer Fred Rose anticipated pushback from radio due to the teetotaling tendencies of country music audiences at the time. So the lyric was changed, creating a more bland mention about the city, and that being where you’ll find ol’ Hank. This edit would be one of quite a few during Williams’ career as he battled inner-demons while becoming one of country music’s biggest stars ever.
11. Lovesick Blues
A big hit for Williams, ‘Lovesick Blues’ was the start of a long line of commercial hits for the country artist. With trendy yodeling parts that were all the rage at the time, the 1947 song pays homage to the countless soldiers who were brave enough to leave their loved ones at home while going off to fight in WWII. The radio success of the single earned Hank an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. His performance went over so well, he had to step back out on stage 6 times for separate encores. This tune was released on a record called ‘Moanin’ The Blues,’ which included several country-blues inspired songs in the vein of fellow country-blues musician Jimmie Rodgers, who pioneered the yodeling technique in America.
10. Ramblin’ Man
“When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man.” A moody ballad featuring plenty of vocal vibrato and mournful yodeling accentuations, ‘Ramblin’ Man’ represented a turning point for Hank, a time when he would really come into his own and create the legacy brand we know and revere today. While earlier hits in the ’40s were perfect for barroom listening, country music matured in the ’50s, when this song was also released. With the “story song” trend on the rise, the genre became not only more respectable but more commercialized as songwriting prowess became a focal point and the country western lifestyle of the cowboy was intimately, and at times painfully, explored. Williams’ own son Hank Jr. would go on to record ‘Ramblin’ Man’ as well, not only continuing his father’s legacy but creating a contemporary outlaw brand of his own that audiences loved.
9. Lost Highway
Written by blind songwriter Leon Payne in the late ’40s, it would be Williams’ passionate rendition that would solidify ‘Lost Highway’ as one of country music’s most beautiful ballads, and one of Hank’s most enduring tracks. Payne’s lyrics gifted music with two of songwriters’ favorite metaphors still used today, the “rolling stone” and the “lost highway.” Both symbols play important roles in the song which focuses on a wayfaring cowboy who can’t seem to shake the trouble that follows him everywhere. Countless songs, poems, and films have borrowed from these historic images making them integral parts of western culture, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Bon Jovi’s song ‘Lost Highway,’ and even rock band The Rolling Stones, who named their group after Muddy Waters’ single, ‘Rollin’ Stone.’
8. Alone And Forsaken
This live track was recorded during a radio appearance and released posthumously after the country star’s untimely passing. ‘Alone and Forsaken’ has a particularly southern gothic style. Speaking of being forsaken by not only his lover but humankind as a whole, the song’s A minor key drives home the protagonist’s heartbreaking ordeal. While much of Williams’ music is classic country through and through, this stripped-down, acoustic rendering gives the tune a folksy quality about it. Hank’s unedited vocal performance makes it particularly haunting, with the live aspect bringing forth each nuance and emotion. For all of his fame and fortune, Hank was a tortured soul, and aside from ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ this song expresses his pain most poignantly.
7. Move It On Over
A cheery number one hit for the OG outlaw, ‘Move It On Over’ has a great rhythmic quality perfect for two-stepping. But the lyrics represent a play on words. “Move on over because the big dog’s moving in,” references the popular phrase “in the doghouse” which points to a significant other (generally a man) being in trouble with “the missus.” The tune was quite autobiographical, with Hank poking a little fun at his own situation. His wife Audrey was also his manager, and when he’d come home having imbibed a bit too much she’d lock him out of the house until he sobered up. This single marked one of several “novelty songs” that would become well-received aspects of his diverse repertoire. The novelty song trend was popular in the ’40s, which often took a humorous approach to cultural commentary. Many times though, novelty songs ended up having a more serious undertone due to dark sense of humor applied to the lyrics.
6. Cold, Cold Heart
One of Hank’s biggest money-making songs, ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ explores the complicated, hostile environments of his marriages, specifically to Audrey, who he was married to for a ten year stretch from 1942-1952. Long before ’80s movies like The Breakfast Club popularized the bad boy image, Hank Williams was one of the first who capitalized on illicit behaviors that ruffled feathers, even though towards the end of his days he regretted many of his mistakes. A womanizer and boozehound, both of these traits proved to be quite toxic to the leading ladies in his life, and the heartache and drama that were constants in his life gave him ample songwriting material.
5. Your Cheatin’ Heart
One of Hank’s signature tracks, he wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ with his second wife Billie Jean while road-tripping to his parents’ house. While on the way they had time to kill and he shed some light on his first marriage as they talked. Somewhere along the conversation, Williams said the phrase, “Your cheatin’ heart” in regards to his first wife Audrey. With that, he had Billie Jean whip out a pen and start taking notes as he called out lyrics. By the time they arrived at his parents, the song was written. Tragically, by the time the single was released in early 1953, Williams had already died while on his way to a concert. The posthumously released track topped the charts and became a trademark, often covered Hank Williams hit.
4. I Saw The Light
This Williams song wasn’t a hit at first, but it became so widely covered and so beloved by country music audiences that it is now considered to be a country gospel standard. The historically important work was written after Williams was being driven home from a show by his mom (Hank was in the backseat passed out after drinking too much), and when she woke him to let him know they were close to home, she said “Hank, I saw the light.” This was in reference to a stop light that was close to their town, but for the country songwriter, he turned it into something more. Drawing on themes of sin and the hope believers receive due to God’s grace, famed gospel writer Albert E. Brumley (‘I’ll Fly Away’) was a big influence for ‘I Saw The Light.’ The 2015 crew for the biopic chronicling Hank’s life and career chose this song title as the film name because it so closely represents Williams’ lifelong duality between the darkness of personal demons and the light of renewed spirituality.
3. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
This weary, slow-burn confessional is a longtime favorite among fans and one of country music’s most influential songs ever recorded. All of Hank’s pain, heartbreak, and struggles are wrapped up in three and a half minutes. Drawing on deeply southern imagery, from a “lonesome whippoorwill” to a “midnight train,” ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ was written from a poetic aspect, with the songwriter originally intending it to be a spoken word piece. An anchor at his performances after its release in ’49, he would score “country music standard” status yet again with this piece because it was covered and played so fervently. Williams’ upbringing was anything but peaceful. From witnessing siblings’ deaths at a young age to the damage WWI did to his father, Hank’s own diagnosis of the bone deformity Spina Bifida meant he’d spend his life chasing relief in bottles, from pills to alcohol. Life in the south wasn’t easy, especially for rural communities like the small Alabama town he grew up in. These hardships are staples of country music’s early contemporary works, which seamlessly blend pain and prayer together like this brilliant Hank classic.
2. Jambalaya (On The Bayou)
“Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.” Cajun-inspired violin dances and guitars chop as Williams sings about heading down to Louisiana for a little bit of fun. Though he based a lot of the tune’s melodic parts on a Cajun music staple, ‘Grand Texas,’ the other layers of the single blend country and western in with bits of creole flair to appeal to a wider audience. ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’ would go on to become Williams’ most covered song, with popular acts like The Carpenters and John Fogerty releasing celebrated versions. It was Hank’s rousing original release that climbed to #1 on the charts, though.
1. Hey, Good Lookin’
With possibly one of the most famous choruses of all time, Hank Williams’ smash hit ‘Hey, Good Lookin” was eventually admitted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is also considered by Country Music Television to be one of the genre’s 100 Greatest Songs of All Time, coming in at #19. Debuting in 1951, just a couple short years before his passing, Hank actually wrote the catchy tune for his friend and fellow musician Jimmy Dickens. Dickens was looking for a hit song at the time, so Williams started playing around with some lyrics. In one short plane ride they took together, Hank had written ‘Hey, Good Lookin.” However, realizing its potential he ended up keeping the song for himself, jokingly stating it was “too good” for the lesser-known Dickens. The fun number would go on to be an excellent financial driver for the Williams estate. It proved to be perfect jingle material, appearing in many different commercials over the decades including a promo stint with popular American eatery, Applebee’s. ‘The hit single crossed genres and has graced countless U.S. households via both music and television mediums, and takes the top spot on our countdown of the best Hank Williams songs.