How Hank Williams Senior Revolutionized a Genre

Many may know of Hank Williams Jr., a professional country singer who wrote songs such as “Family Tradition” and “A Country Boy Can Survive”. Though Hank Williams Jr. has influenced country music in his own way, his father Hank Williams Senior revolutionized hillbilly music into a more respectable genre, country.

In the beginning, hillbilly music was struggling to find a place among the music industry because it lacked a cohesive sound and identity. Another barrier for the genre was that it was not allowed to become a part of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). In order to become a member of the AFM, you had to be able to sight read music, in other words you had to be able to play a piece you’ve never seen or played before just by looking at the sheet music. This was difficult for the hillbilly genre because most of its musicians could not read music. Because they could not become a part of the AFM, it was virtually impossible to perform outside of the south, seeing as membership was almost always a requirement.

With the rise of Hank Williams Sr. came a revolution of hillbilly music into country music. By combining elements of the hillbilly tradition to give his songs an appeal, he became wildly famous and well known. When Hank Williams Sr. approached the stage however, he did not portray a western cowboy. But rather, Hank portrayed a clean-cut, sophisticated musician, almost always wearing a nice suit to perform and instructing his band members to do the same (Huber, Goodson, Anderson 47). hank purtyHe also revolutionized the subject matter of the songs he was singing from overly romanticized cowboys, to actual relatable matters such as guilt and loneliness. While he still maintained the “male bravado”, he also sang sad songs that tugged on the heart strings such as “Lonesome Whistle” and “Lovesick Blues”, songs about being lonely and miserable missing his lady while time is passing by.

With lyrics such as, “Well I’m in love I’m in love with a beautiful gal, That’s what’s the matter with me, Well I’m in love I’m in love with a beautiful gal, But she don’t care about me” Hank Williams is using relatable scenarios in order to better identify with his audience. The performance below is “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams Sr.

 

By changing the manner in which hillbilly music was performed and tweaking the subject matter of the songs into something more personal and relatable, Hank Williams Sr. created a more respectable style of hillbilly music, known as “country music” (Huber, Goodson, Anderson 48).

Hank Williams Sr. was only briefly able to enjoy his hard work and fame before he passed away on January 1, 1953. Though he died early in his career, Hank Williams’ fame, and legacy, have lasted long after his death. He formed the basis of today’s country music. As mentioned in the previous blog post, hillbilly music served as a coping mechanism for what was going on in the world with recovering from the Great Depression and the beginning of WWII (Malone 90,91). Hank Williams’ country music also served a purpose of an escape outlet toward the end of WWII due to how relatable the subject matter was.

“Hank Williams – Lovesick Blues.” YouTube. YouTube, 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

Hank Williams Senior Promotional Photo. Digital image. WSM Radio, n.d. Web.           16 Mar. 2015.

Huber, Patrick, Steve Goodson, and David M. Anderson. “Section 10.” The Hank Williams Reader. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 47-48. Print.

Malone, Bill C. “Mountaineers and Cowboys.” Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: U of Georgia, 1993. 69-91. Print.

 

 

Hillbilly Music and Its Effect on American Society

When hearing the term Hillbilly music, an image similar to this probably comes to mind.

hillbilly uhhhh

This stereotype came later in the musics’ history. The early hillbilly musicians were actually quite the opposite of the picture displayed above. According to Bill C. Malone, author of Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers, early advertisements of country musicians “show them dressed in their ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ clothes— suits, ties, well-polished shoes— and not in overalls, brogans, blue jeans, or other accoutrements of working-class life”(Malone 70).

hank williams
How then, did the genre obtain its name? Because the music itself could not be “easily defined” as Malone describes it, it could not be easily labeled either (Malone 70). Perhaps this musical style was difficult to define due to the fact that its first performers had no “clear self-identity”(Malone 70). This was especially visible when Al Hopkins, a leader of a string band reportedly told a recording entrepreneur “Just call us whatever you want, we’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies”, which was where the genre got its name (Malone 70). The significance of this name plays hand-in-hand with the image of the genre, as can be expected given that first photo is now a common stereotype of hillbilly music (Lange 60).
Soon, the image of the hillbilly musician began to stray from the afore mentioned promotional photographs into that of rural working-class, or the most recognizable, cowboy with the help of hollywood film makers through western movies. Playing to this “largely romantic” perception of the south and rural life, hillbilly music later turned the genre into both a film sensation and a musical sensation. The significance of this genre appears in the late 1930s, 40s, and 50s, serving as a comfort blanket and coping mechanism for a struggling country (Malone 91).

This video is an example of how Hollywood portrayed the singing hillbilly/cowboy. (Start at the 6 minute mark, and watch about a minute of it)


The 1930s and 40s marked the “heyday of cowboy music in the US”, when the genre was undertaken by Americans as a means of “coping with hard times” after the Great Depression and at the start of World War II (Malone 90,91). This image of the cowboy initiated by the hillbilly genre and emphasized through Hollywood’s old western movies, was a vivid reminder of frontier America, embodying “freedom, independence, and all of the manly traits that ensured survival on the frontier”, and that were “distinctive and defining ingredients of American life”(Malone 73,74). Hillbilly, or “Cowboy” music gave the nation a reminder of the bravery, courageousness, and hard work that embodied our country, instilling hope back into a weakened nation.

1. Fure, Robert. “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.” Film School Rejects. FilmSchoolRejects, 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

2. Hank Williams Senior Promotional Photo. Digital image. WSM Radio, n.d. Web.           16 Mar. 2015.

3. Malone, Bill C. “Mountaineers and Cowboys.” Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: U of Georgia, 1993. 69-91. Print.

4. “COWBOY WESTERN HEROS 1940/50’s.” YouTube. YouTube, 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2015

5. Lange, Jeffrey J. Smile When You Call Me a Hillbilly: Country Music’s Struggle for Respectability, 1939-1954. Athens: U of Georgia, 2004. Print.