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A heartbreaking and unforgettable portrait of country music’s founding father.
After he died in the backseat of a Cadillac at the age of twenty-nine, Hank Williams?a frail, flawed man who had become country music’s most compelling and popular star?instantly morphed into its first tragic martyr. Having hit the heights in the postwar era with simple songs of heartache and star-crossed love, he would, with that outlaw swagger, become in death a template for the rock generation to follow. But unlike those other musical giants who never made thirty, no legacy endures quite like that of the "Hillbilly King."
Now presenting the first fully realized biography of Hiram King Williams in a generation, Mark Ribowsky vividly returns us to the world of country’s origins, in this case 1920s Alabama, where Williams was born into the most trying of circumstances, which included a dictatorial mother, a henpecked father, and an agonizing spinal condition. Forced by his overbearing matriarch to do odd jobs—selling peanuts, shining shoes—young Hank soon found respite in street-corner blues man Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, who showed him how to make a guitar sing. It wasn’t long before young Hank found his way onto those nascent American radio airwaves, where his melodic voice and timely tunes slowly garnered a following. On that dusty path to early stardom, Hank was indefatigably supported by his overbearing mother, who would shepherd his band, the Driftin’ Cowboys, to shows along backroads of the Jim Crow South. Yet it was a different woman who would supply Hank with the fuel he needed to explode out of the local spotlight: his sometimes wife, Audrey Mae Sheppard. As Ribowsky brilliantly evokes, their fiery relationship—as abusive as it was passionate—would inform nearly every song he ever wrote, and provide a template for country music for generations to follow.
In chronicling Hank’s rise to stardom, Ribowsky also explores all those cautionary tales that have, until now, remained secreted beneath the grooves of his records. Drawing from new interviews, Ribowsky connects those seemingly eternal afternoons and nights spent choked in booze and desperation to the music that Williams would create. With remarkable nuance and insight, Ribowsky allows us to witness the man behind the tipped cowboy hat—the charismatic troubadour who hid the wounds of his domestic quarrels, relied on painkillers to get through the day, and was always teetering on the edge of tragedy, even when he saw the light.
Tracing the singular rise of a music legend from the street corners of the Depression-era South to the now-immortal stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and finally to a haunting, lonely end on New Year’s Day 1953, Hank uncovers the real man beneath the myths, reintroducing us to an American original whose legacy, like a good night at the honkytonk, promises to carry on and on.