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Hank Williams became one of America's first country music superstars, with hits like "Your Cheatin' Heart," before his early death at 29.
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A year after first meeting with Rose, Williams had his first hit, "Move It On Over." In April 1948 he scored a second Billboard success with "Honky Tonkin.'"
But along with this early success came increased erratic behavior from Williams, who often showed up at live performances drunk. For a time his relationship with Fred Rose deteriorated, but the two were able to mend fences, paving the way for Williams to become a regular on the "Louisiana Hayride,
" a regular Saturday night performance hosted by a radio station in Shreveport.
The performances greatly increased Williams' name recognition, but he still lacked a number one hit. That all changed in 1949 with the release of "Lovesick Blues," a throwaway rendition of an old show tune he'd pushed to tape at the end of a recording session.
The song resonated with music fans, as well as executives at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, who invited Williams to perform.
In ways that must have seemed unimaginable to this poor country boy, Williams' life quickly changed. His stardom put money in his pocket and gave him the kind of creative freedom artists long for. Over the next several years he churned out a number of other big hits, including "Cold, Cold Heart," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey Good Lookin'," "Lost Highway," and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." He also wrote a number of religious songs under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter.
As the titles of some of Williams' songs suggest, heartbreak and turmoil were never that far from his life. As his success deepened, so did Williams' dependence on alcohol and morphine. The Opry eventually fired him, and in 1952 he and Sheppard divorced.
His physical appearance diminished, too. His hair began falling out, and he put on 30 extra pounds. In late 1951 he suffered a minor heart attack while visiting his sister in Florida.
A little more than a year later, on December 30, 1952, Williams, newly married to a younger woman named Billie Jean, left his mother's home in Montgomery for Charlestown, West Virginia. Liquored up and abusing morphine, he collapsed in a hotel room in Knoxville, Tennessee. A doctor was called to examine him. Despite his physical failings, Williams was cleared for more travel.
On New Year's Day, he took his seat in the back of his 1952 powder blue Cadillac. As his driver, a young college student, barreled toward West Virginia, Williams' health took a turn for the worse. Finally, after not hearing from the singer for two solid hours, the driver pulled the car over in Oak Hill, West Virginia, at 5:30 in the morning. Williams was pronounced dead a short while later.
His passing did not bring about the end to his stardom, however.
It could be argued, in fact, that his early death only enhanced his legend. If Williams had lived, it's not entirely certain that the Nashville music community, so eager to shed its hillbilly roots, would have continued to embrace Williams' music. In the years since his death, Williams' impact has only grown, with artists as varied as Perry Como, Dinah Washington, Norah Jones and Bob Dylan all covering his work.
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