A list of the most influential artists in history chosen by country stars themselves, another honoree is named each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown.
Williams’ short career lasted only about five years, but in that time, he became a legend.
A native of Alabama, Williams learned how to play guitar from a street musician named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. His career began with a 15-minute performance segment on a Montgomery, Alabama, radio station, and he released his first hit, “Move It on Over,” in 1947.
In all, Williams recorded and released 35 Top 10 singles, 11 of which went to No. 1, including many iconic touchstones in the development of country music such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
He is widely considered the first country music superstar, as well as the first singer-songwriter. (Williams wrote and sang his own songs, a combination which was almost unheard of at the time.)
Born with a spinal abnormality that caused him pain his whole life, Williams became an alcoholic early on and later began abusing prescription drugs in a time when their long-term health effects weren’t fully understood.
He died, at age 29, on his way to a concert on New Year’s Day in 1953 when his heart stopped, likely due to complications of alcoholism and drug use.
Williams was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, among many other accolades.
Dwight Yoakam, Trace Adkins, Charlie Worsham, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Kix Brooks, Charlie Daniels and Holly Williams are just a few of the artists who named Williams as one of the most influential artists in country music history.
“Hank Williams Sr. is certainly one of those individuals who became a catalyst for everything that happened after him,” Dwight Yoakam explained. “Everything that happened after Hank Williams is about Hank, you know? His influence on country music culture, it was absolutely different the day after than the day before Hank showed up, and it still is.”
Adkins agreed that Williams altered the path forward for country music.
“Hank Williams changed the future of country music. He really did,” Adkins said. “He made it cool. Hank Williams made country music cool. He took it out of the backwoods and made it mainstream and made it cool. He was the singer-songwriter full package and the first one, to me, to really take it to that level. So he changed everything.”
“His catalog of music has influenced so many other icons in so many other genres,” Worsham added. “In a lot of ways, Hank Williams put country music on the map in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll and pop, and his music will endure for, hopefully, I believe, centuries.”
For many artists, Williams’ songwriting is the best there’s ever been.
“If I could write a song like he wrote, just great, great songs,” Owen said. “He had that great style, and what he accomplished in 29 years -- just the writing regardless of anything else -- is something. So I think everybody else basically has to stand back. As far as I’m concerned, Hank Williams is the guy.”
“He killed with melodies at a time when there was this Appalachian, three-chords-and-the-truth sort of thing that people talk about,” Brooks said. “Hank threw some melodies in there that went with those great lyrics, and it changed music. It changed music across the board. From ‘Jambalaya’ to ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’ to ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ to ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’ I mean, he was 29 years old when he passed away. I think about the songs I was writing when I was 29, and he was done at that point. Good grief, just an amazing talent.”
“We’ve all felt one emotion or another, and he touched all of them,” said Daniels. “He was the first singer-songwriter that sang his own songs and wrote his own songs and didn’t depend on anybody else and was a true country superstar. He was one of kind. There is only one. There will never be another Hank Williams. … Everybody knew who Hank Williams was. They may not know another country artist, but they knew who Hank Williams was.”
Williams’ granddaughter -- a singer-songwriter herself, along with her father Hank Williams Jr. – grew up in the shadow of her family’s legacy. To Holly Williams, the stories of his stardom and untimely death are very real. She understands his impact on music and culture very simply.
“I remember Kurt Cobain (of the iconic grunge rock group Nirvana) said that Hank Williams was the first original punk,” she said. “Hank always had this quote like, ‘I don’t know what you mean by country music. I just write songs the only way I know how.’
“Had Hank come out today, first of all, he could have never released all those singles in five years. It would be impossible to put out 35 singles in that amount of time. … Nowadays, I guess he would come out and be called Americana. It’s very simple music, but I attribute that to him starting such a force in American music. Whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Bono (of U2) or Jason Aldean or Miranda lambert, they can all draw something from his well.”