Kids, there's a reason Hiram "Hank' Williams, who would have been 90 years old September 17, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dead of an overdose of pain killers in the back of his long white Cadillac at 29, Williams was, in his brief interval in Nashville, not only a hit-making country star but a songwriting machine.
Now don't get me wrong, Hank was no Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, capable of building staggering cloudbursts of carefully sculpted, magnificent poetry. No, old Hank was the working man's bard, the guy who cut straight to the heart of any matter -- and most of those matters were either woman trouble, drinkin' trouble, or a combination of the two unless he decided to wax eloquent about mama goin' to heaven or the perils of gossip. The working class had a voracious appetite for almost anything Hank would commit to wax.
What many don't realize is that much of Williams' financial success came when his songs were cut by others who were sometimes not in the country genre at all. In fact, Williams was known as something of an egotistical braggart around Nashville, occasionally whipping out receipts for his royalty checks to impress other writers or executives.
The most famous of these Williams covers was Tony Bennett's lush pop version of "Cold, Cold Heart." So the story goes, producer Mitch Miller brought the tune to Bennett, who was immediately skeptical that cutting some cornpone hillbilly composition that had been a country hit was likely to advance his career. But Miller kept insisting Bennett just focus on the lyrics and sing them his own way.
Overlaid with saccharine strings, Bennett's 1951 version was a huge hit, his second No. 1 that year. The crossover pop success of "Cold, Cold Heart" is considered a watershed event in Nashville history and is frequently credited with widening country music's appeal beyond mostly rural America.
Since Bennett's groundbreaking cover, hundreds of artists have cut hundreds of versions of Williams' tunes. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride and others have devoted entire albums to Williams' material. Here are my five favorite Hank covers. (And yes, purists, we know the Hank originals are so raw, rare, and true that these cover versions for the most part pale in comparison. Humor us.)
Ray Charles, "You Win Again" Even buried in cheesy saccharine orchestration, there is no denying the power of Brother Ray's vocal on his version of "You Win Again," which was part of the ground-breaking 1962 cross-over album Modern Sounds of Country Music, an album that not only reshaped Charles's career but changed ideas about what qualified as country music.
Far, far removed from the plaintive original, Charles, like Tony Bennett, stepped past Hank's honky tonk sentiment and found a universal song. The list of artists who have covered "You Win Again" is long, illustrious, and eclectic: Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Martina McBride, Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Gene Vincent, and Wanda Jackson. Charley Pride had his 24th No. 1 with "You Win Again." The song was also sometimes part of the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers sets circa 1969, and the Grateful Dead included it in live shows for several years in the early '70s as well as on the live album Europe 72.
B.J. Thomas, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" Thomas was still just a Houston suburban teen when, as a favor to his father, he stepped behind a microphone at SugarHill Studios and cut one of Williams' most famous tunes, which rocketed to No. 8 on the Billboard pop charts in 1966. Trust me, in 1966 teenagers were making out to this in cars or living rooms all over my West Texas hometown.
Hank recorded this one in 1949 and it has since been covered by Charlie McCoy, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leon Russell (as Hank Wilson) and even football wack-job Terry Bradshaw (yes, we know: the horror). Others who've covered it: Little Richard, Bill Frissell, Cowboy Junkies, Marshall Chapman, Tommy James and the Shondells, Wynnona Judd, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Johnny Tillotson, Lee Ann Rimes, and Marty Robbins. Johnny Cash and Nick Cave recorded it as a duet. Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan both covered the tune for television and film. That's what you call validation.
Jason and the Scorchers, "Lost Highway" Hank Williams, meet Link Wray. While Hank turned this Leon Payne composition into pure rounder's angst, on 1985's Lost and Found the Scorchers re-imagined it as a metal-tinged explosion of sinful joy and gladly volunteered to jump into the fires of hell where, presumably, Hank had already ventured.
The song's lyrics and structure make it an easy cover in the rock vein, attested to not only by the Scorchers' scorching version but also by raucous interpretations by the Replacements and the Mekons. In more traditional country style, the tune has been covered by bluegrass icon Jimmy Martin and global icon Willie Nelson. Odder versions have been offered by Jeff Buckley and Norwegian pop singer Kurt Nilsen, who had a 2008 No. 1 in his homeland with a duet assist from Willie Nelson.
Even more Hank on the next page.