He has been called “the father of country music,” and indeed Hank Williams played a major role in defining modern country music.
But Hank’s place on the landscape of American popular music goes far beyond country. Born into poverty in Alabama and raised mostly father-less during the Great Depression, Williams suffered a debilitating birth defect to boot.
“Hiram Williams (his name was misspelled ‘Hiriam’ on his birth certificate) came from a rural background. His parents were probably strawberry farmers when he was born, although his father, Lon, later worked for logging companies around Georgiana in south Alabama. Hank was born with a spinal deformity, spina bifida occulta, that would later have a deleterious impact upon his life. Lon entered a Veterans Administration hospital in 1930 when Hank was six, and Hank rarely saw him until the early 1940s. Hank’s mother, Lillie, moved the family to Greenville, and then to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937. Hank’s musical career was already underway by the mid-1930s, and he formed the first of his Drifting Cowboys bands around 1938.” —Country Music Hall of Fame
Given this back-drop of physical depravity that defined Hank’s youth, it is no wonder that essentially his music was born of the blues.
Hank was living with his mother in Greenville (AL) when he got his first guitar. He was just eight years old.
“Local influences shaped Hank’s music more profoundly than the big stars of the day. The gospel songs of both the black and white communities taught him that music, whether sacred or secular, must have a spiritual component. He learned traditional folk ballads and early country songs from neighbors and friends, and blues from a local African-American street musician, Rufus Payne (also known as Tee Tot). Payne not only taught Hank how to play the guitar, but helped him overcome his innate shyness. The blues feel that suffuses much of Hank Williams’ work is almost certainly Tee Tot’s legacy.” —PBS.org
Hank Williams synthesized the music of his time like no other American composer. Incorporating the hillbilly music of the Appalachians, the gospel and blues emanating from the deep south, Williams was a populist.