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 the genre from hillbilly music into what we know today as country music.
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).
He 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 the purpose of an escape outlet toward the end of WWII due to how relatable the subject matter was. Being that the men were leaving for war, Hank offered a musical style that related to the emotions of both the traveling soldiers and the lonely wife/mother. Giving an escape or rather a release of these emotions expressing grief for the troubles of the world at the time, Hank Williams was able to comfort a weary nation through his expressive songs.
“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.