Hank Williams Born: September 17,1923-Died: January 1,1953 Part Four
The American entry into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Williams. All his band members were drafted to serve in the military, while he got a 4-F deferment from the military draft after falling from a bull during a rodeo in Texas. Many of their replacements refused to continue playing in the band because of Williams’ worsening alcoholism. He continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated, so in August 1942 radio station WSFA fired him for “habitual drunkenness.” During one of his concerts Williams met backstage his idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, who later warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying, “You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.”
He worked for the rest of the war in a shipbuilding company in Mobile, Alabama, as well as singing in bars for soldiers. In 1943 Williams met Audrey Sheppard on a medicine show in Banks, Alabama. Williams and Sheppard lived and worked together in Mobile, Sheppard later told Williams that she wanted to move to Montgomery with him and start a band together and help him regain his radio show. The couple were married in 1944 in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama, by a justice of the peace. The marriage was declared illegal, since Sheppard’s divorce from her previous husband did not comply with the legally required sixty-day trial reconciliation.
In 1945, when he was back in Montgomery, Williams started to perform again for radio station WSFA. He wrote songs weekly to perform during the shows. As a result of the new variety of his repertoire, Williams published his first song book, Original Songs of Hank Williams. The book only listed lyrics, since its main purpose was to attract more audience. It included ten songs: “Mother Is Gone”, “Won’t You Please Come Back”, “My Darling Baby Girl” (with Audrey Sheppard), “Grandad’s Musket”, “I Just Wish I Could Forget”, “Let’s Turn Back the Years”, “Honkey-Tonkey”, “I Loved No One But You”, “A Tramp on the Street”, and “You’ll Love Me Again”. Williams became recognized as a songwriter, Sheppard became his manager and occasionally accompanied him on duets in some of his live concerts.
On September 14, 1946, Williams auditioned for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry but was rejected. After the failure of his audition, Williams and Audrey Sheppard tried to interest the recently formed music publishing firm Acuff-Rose Music. Williams and his wife approached Fred Rose, the president of the company, during one of his habitual ping-pong games at WSM radio studios. Audrey Williams asked Rose if her husband could sing a song for him on that moment, Rose agreed, and he liked Williams’ musical style. Rose signed Williams to a six-song contract, and leveraged this deal to sign Williams with Sterling Records. On December 11, 1946, in his first recording session, he recorded “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul”, “Calling You”, “Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)”, and “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels”. The recordings “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin'” became successful, and earned Williams the attention of MGM Records.
Williams signed with MGM Records in 1947 and released “Move It on Over”, which became a massive country hit. In 1948 he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and he joined the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast that propelled him into living rooms all over the southeast appearing on weekend shows. Williams eventually started to host a show on KWKH and started touring across western Louisiana and eastern Texas, always returning on Saturdays for the weekly broadcast of the Hayride. After a few more moderate hits, in 1949 he released his version of the 1922 Cliff Friend & Irving Mills song “Lovesick Blues”, made popular by Rex Griffin. Williams’ version became a huge country hit; the song stayed at number one on the Billboard charts over four consecutive months, crossing over to mainstream audiences and gaining Williams a place in the Grand Ole Opry. On June 11, 1949, Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. He brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms (steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys, earning an estimated US$1,000 per show (equivalent to US$10,065.7 in 2017). That year Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.). During 1949, he joined the first European tour of the Grand Ole Opry, performing in military bases in England, Germany and Azores. Williams released seven hit songs after “Lovesick Blues”, including “Wedding Bells”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)”, and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”.