Hank Williams: Songwriting Legacy Lives (Part 1 of 2)

Jan. 1, 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of Hank Williams’ death. In the first part of this two-part series, CMT.com focuses on Williams’ greatest legacy — his songwriting. Wednesday (Jan. 1), in the second installment, writer Tom Robinson talks to Charles Carr, the college student who drove the Cadillac when Williams died on his way to a concert in Ohio.

Hank Williams walked into Nashville’s Castle Studio on Sept. 23, 1952, to record, unaware it would be his last session. He left on a high note. The lanky hillbilly singer poured out his raw emotions on four songs that would become country music standards. Accompanied by talented musicians including young guitarist Chet Atkins and steel guitarist Don Helms, the session produced “Take These Chains From My Heart,” “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You,” “Kaw-Liga” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Helms had never heard “Your Cheatin’ Heart” until that afternoon. Williams penned that song — and “Kaw-Liga” — just a month prior while relaxing in a cottage on Kowaliga Bay in Alabama. Williams’ pal and publisher Fred Rose fine-tuned the songs, making them studio-ready for that autumn session.

Williams strummed out the tune and sang through a few lines of the composition to get warmed up. He then turned to Helms and asked for an intro. “You know what to give me,” Williams said. Helms carefully laid his thumbs on the double-neck steel and struck swelling chords that produced arguably the most famous introduction to a country song. In session terminology, they nailed it in one take. That one take, which sold millions of copies, was the only time Helms played “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with Williams. Less than four months later, Williams died on New Year’s Day 1953 in the back seat of his chauffeured Cadillac en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio.

“One take, that was it,” said Helms, a longtime member of Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band and a close friend. “We also recorded ‘Kaw-Liga’ that day, and it took a few takes to get that drum beat down just right,” Helms recalled. “That session was the last time I saw Hank alive. He had left Nashville by then but had come back for the recording session.”

In 50 years since Williams’ passing, his compositions have crossed all musical genres. From the Grateful Dead to George Jones , an impressive roster has recorded Williams’ compositions that in many cases resulted in hits.

Everyone has a favorite Williams song. For Helms it’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” He recalls, “That was Hank’s favorite, too. ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ says a lot and is easy for me to play. I could play it in three-part harmony. I could play my interpretation. When Hank wrote it he let Fred [Rose] look at it. He changed that one line from tortured mind to doubtful mind. Hank welcomed that input from Fred.”

Today, Helms performs with Jett Williams, daughter of the country music icon. In concert Jett never sings “Cold, Cold Heart,” but introduces Helms, who plays a tearful instrumental of the classic. “She’s never sung it because she knows it’s my favorite,” said Helms. “I appreciate that.”

Jett Williams was born Jan. 6, 1953 — just two days after her father’s funeral. It’s well chronicled how as an adult she set out and discovered her true bloodlines. When Williams wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Kaw-Liga” in the Alabama cabin, he was accompanied on the trip with his girlfriend Bobbie Jett who was pregnant with the daughter. Jett Williams took an emotional journey last summer to the Kowaliga Bay site to dedicate the cabin that had been restored to its 1952 likeness, as when her parents stayed there that mid-August.

While those two songs hold a special place for Williams’ singing daughter, her favorite dad composition is “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” She explains, “I call it his sensory song. He asks you to hear a lonesome whistle and see a robin weep. It’s also a song about missing someone — something in your life no longer there.”

“My dad never used the same formula in his songs,” she noted. “‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is four verses and no chorus. Look at ‘Kaw-Liga.’ I can’t think of a song where you do verses in minor and shift to major for the chorus. The meter of the song creates that song. ‘Kaw-Liga’ was a novelty song, but because of the unique structure, ‘Kaw-Liga’ was innovative.”

Merle Kilgore was an aspiring songwriter and singer in Shreveport, La., when he hung around the Louisiana Hayride and carried the guitar cases of the country stars as they prepared to play on the KWKH radio show. Kilgore wasted little time becoming friends and absorbing songwriting tidbits from Williams. In short order Kilgore would pen the Webb Pierce hit “More and More,” followed by Claude King ’s “Wolverton Mountain” and Johnny Cash ’s “Ring of Fire,” the latter co-written with June Carter Cash .

“Hank would say everybody likes to feel sorry for themselves,” recalled Kilgore. “He’d say, ‘You write ‘em, sing ‘em and they say that’s the story of their lives.’ He carried a little spiral notebook and a little pencil stuck down in the spiral. He’d write down lyrics.”

Merle, who today manages Hank Williams Jr. , has his favorite Williams composition. “Cold, Cold Heart,” he said. “It’s just straight forward and simple. It’s great. I’m not sure what Hank Jr.’s all-time favorite is. But I’ve heard him say ‘House of Gold.’”

“Hank Sr.’s longevity is unbelievable,” remarked Kilgore. “They [fans] just love to hear him sing. They’ve recycled his old stuff. They don’t like anybody to sing with him and they don’t want you to add strings. Just like to hear Hank singing.”

Read part two of the the two part series — Driver Recalls Hank Williams’ Last Ride (Part 2 of 2)