Hank Williams was a disaster waiting to happen when he made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on June 11, 1949, less than a month after the birth of his son, Hank Jr.
By this time, he was already a heavy drinker, a spendthrift and was enmeshed in the first of what would prove to be two messy divorces from his wife, Audrey. He also suffered from excruciating back pain that would plague him for the rest of his life.
On the plus side, he was a certified musical genius, both as a songwriter and a performer.
For his Opry debut, Williams wowed the crowd with “Lovesick Blues,” his recording of which was still No. 1 in Billboard. Legend has it that the crowd gave him six encores. “Lovesick Blues” wasn’t one of Williams’ own compositions, but “Mind Your Own Business,” the other song he sang that night, was, and it soon earned him a Top 5. Ahead of him lay 10 No. 1 singles, although three of them would come after his death.
Williams immediately became one of the Opry’s most popular members, working as a headliner in national and international “package shows” with such other luminaries as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens and Red Foley.
In early 1951, Williams topped the country chart with his “Cold, Cold Heart.” His publisher and sometimes co-writer, Fred Rose, pitched the song to rising crooner Tony Bennett, who took it to No. 1 on the pop charts later that same year.
Rapidly, Williams’ appeal reached beyond his country music base. In August 1951, he set out on a concert tour that featured such radio and movie favorites as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante. The tour was aborted a month later when its sponsor was sold — but not before Williams gained valuable crossover exposure.
Williams’ popularity also secured him national television appearances on The Perry Como Show and The Kate Smith Evening Hour.
For a variety of reasons — ranging from too heavy scheduling to his increasing alcohol and drug consumption — Williams began missing performances or performing while visibly impaired. On Aug. 9, 1952, he missed a scheduled Grand Ole Opry appearance and was fired from the popular radio show two days later. For someone who revered the Opry as much as Williams did, it was a calamitous blow.
In their 1983 single, “The Conversation,” Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings “discuss” the elder Williams’ turbulent life. The most poignant lyrics occur near the end of the song when they sing, “Most folks don’t know they fired him from the Opry/That caused his greatest pain.”