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Born in rural Alabama, Williams’ creative instincts were incubated in southern gospel music by way of his organ-playing mother. In the Baptist church, where every Sunday young Williams joined the ranks of the faithful, he bore witness to the way music relieved the struggling congregation throughout the Great Depression. After moving with his mother to Georgiana, Louisiana, Williams began taking music lessons with African American blues guitarist Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a successful street musician. He taught Williams how to sing the blues and mean it, as well as how to ease the pain of leaner days with a bottle of liquor, a habit which Williams came to rely on more and more as years went by.

At first, his musical career consisted largely of hosting local radio shows and playing movie theaters and honky-tonks. But when he signed with MGM in 1947, the release of his hit single, ‘Move it on Over’ brought him onto the national stage. Before long, he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry, the dream venue for any would-be country star, where he became the first of performer to receive six encores. In the early fifties, Williams released hit after hit, and performed with the greatest country singers of the day. At the same time, however, his debilitating back pain, a lifelong condition exacerbated by a serious fall suffered on a hunting trip in 1951, drove him to extreme alcoholism. He also began relying heavily on morphine and other painkillers, and soon he earned a reputation for being as unreliable as he was talented. Finally, on his way to a concert on New Years Eve, 1952, a cocktail of sedatives, alcohol, and morphine knocked him flat in his Cadillac, and by New Year’s Day he was pronounced dead.

Stricken by loss, mourners gathered at his mother’s boarding house in Montgomery, Alabama. Two days later at 20,000 attendees, his funeral was the largest event ever held in Montgomery, a testament to his power and lasting impact. Hank Williams continues to be revered as one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century, and his work has been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, to Bob Dylan, Jack White, and Norah Jones. Simple, wry, and poignant, his songs placed country music in a central role in shaping American popular culture.