It’s an indisputable fact that he’s a musical icon in the past, the present, and of more generations to come. That’s impressive considering the brief years of his contribution to the art of what we call now country music.
Now that we’re clear how remarkable of a country artist he was, here’s an attempt to get to the core of his being through “Luke the Drifter”. We’ve put the late Hank high on a pedestal that we border forgetting the real and vulnerable man that he was. But, before we explore Luke’s persona, here’s an overview of Hank William’s lifetime.
Our Man, Hank Williams Sr.
Born Hiram King Williams in 1923, in Mt. Olive, Alabama. His love for music growing up is akin to breathing air. Hence, he’s a natural on every song he’s recorded.
But there’s another motivating factor on his diligence to do music. The late Hank’s biographers discovered that he suffered severe back pains due to a disorder of his spinal column. Physically incapable to do hard labor, he turned to a career which he knew he’s good at.
Music, though a great consolation for him, could not ease his chronic back pain. Hence, his alcoholism. But, it did not stop there. He also turned to painkillers, each time increasing their dosages. Those combined led to his early demise in the back seat of his Cadillac in 1953. That was New Year’s day, but he did not live to see it. He was only 29.
Family Background and Childhood
In September 1923, Hiram “Hank” Williams was born to a poor couple, Elonzo and Jesse Lillybelle. Jesse (also called Lillie), played the organ at Mt. Olives Baptist church. Naturally, she would take the young Hank to church and thus left an imprint of Christianity in him. On the flipside, Hank’s father Elonzo (Lon) was a drunkard and had to leave his family when Hank was 6. Lon’s got drafted into the army in the early 1900s and suffered a head injury while on service. In November 1929, his brain became totally impaired. He was admitted to a Veterans Administration hospital and never saw his family again.
Wading through their difficulties, Lillie did what she could to raise Hank for the love of the Lord. She painstakingly labored so she could send Hank to music school. All she dreamed of is to see her son use his singing voice for the Lord. Sadly, the allure of this world was stronger. Hank began drinking and attending night dances on Saturdays. He was only 11 when he touched alcohol and wasn’t able to stop drinking since.
A Brief Look at His Career
How He Started
A child prodigy, Hank caught the ears of WSFA producers when he sang and played on a sidewalk just across the radio station. They invited him to sing on-air and it instantly became a hit. Listeners would often contact the station to request for more of the “singing kid’s” performances. Hence, they hired Hank and gave him his own show. He would perform twice in a week for 15 minutes on air.
His radio show opened a bigger opportunity for him. Eventually, he started his own band, the “Drifting Cowboys” They toured the club circuits of Alabama and performed in private events. Their road shows were doing well so Hank decided to drop out of school in October 1939. With Hank working full time, Lillie Williams, (his mother) took the job of being the band’s manager.
Timeline of his Later Career
1946-1974 – His first hits, “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin'” with Sterling Records
1948– Another massive hit, “Move It On Over” with MGM Records. He also joined Louisiana Hayride radio show which all the more spread his fame all over the southeast.
1949– His country hit “Lovesick Blues” tickled the ears of the mainstream audiences that when he sang it at the Grand Ole Opry, he had to give six encores. That officially made Hank Williams a major country star.
1950– Hank William’s alter-ego, “Luke the Drifter” came into existence. Luke’s persona became his outlet for his moralistic and religious-themed recordings.
1951- “Dear John” became a hit with the B-side, “Cold, Cold Heart,” enduring as one of his most famous songs.
October 1952- Hank Williams got fired from the Grand Ole Opry. They wanted him to get sober first. He returned to the Louisiana Hayride. Soon, the “Drifting Cowboys” also decided to leave Hank.
July 1, 1953 – On his way to Canton, Ohio, Hank’s lifeless body was discovered by his 17-year-old chauffeur at an all-night service station in Oak Hill, West Virginia. Ironic as it may sound but his final single was titled, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
His Other Hits and Classics
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1953),“My Son Calls Another Man Daddy,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me,” “Why Should We Try Anymore?” “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “Why Don’t You Love Me?” “Moanin’ the Blues,” and “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’.”
His Marital Life
Audrey Williams (1923-1975)
Williams met Audrey Sheppard in 1943 and were married the following year. She became his manager, booking his shows for dances and fairs. Out of their union came Randall Hank Williams on May 26, 1949.
However, their marriage was never smooth. Due to her husband’s excessive drinking, Audrey first left Hank in 1948. They were reunited in 1949 but eventually filed for divorce in 1952. She never remarried and died of heart failure in 1975. She was 52.
Billie Jean Jones (1933
Hank’s second wife whom he married in October 1952, met in Nashville in summer of that same year. She was 19 years old.
Their marriage though was deemed invalid. She was also coming out of a divorce and was 11 days short before she married Hank. Hence, they had to renew their vows at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium before 10,000 spectators.
After Hank’s death, she remarried and became wife and manager to Johnny Horton.
Now, let’s have a look at “Luke the Drifter”
The pseudonym was out of necessity to avoid complaints from jukebox operators. Luke’s released recordings were a mixture of songs and recitations-country music’s tradition in the 1940’s about morality, politics and life’s blues.
Hank’s sister once said, “If you want to know Hank, check Luke.” No other person understood him best than Luke. Though only a created persona, he was, the embodiment of Hank’s spirit. In that light, let’s uncover what’s underneath the happy-go-lucky facade of a superstar through Luke’s songs. There were two albums where his thoughts were heard.
Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter (1953)
It is not a music album as most were spoken. While Hank Williams was the rising star, Luke’s the sermonizing troubadour who sees life as it happens on the ground.
Each track was packed with profound details indicating that this Luke was socially aware. He not only had the eyes to see life’s ugly realities but also some sense and wisdom to impart.
On Gossips – “Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw” is a tale of a young woman who was verbally ostracized by her neighbor. Still, this woman branded as “bad’ had the sense to save her neighbor’s child from a speeding car.
Broken Homes – “Help Me Understand” is a heartbreaking story of a child’s prayer concerning her parent’s divorce.
Thriving in Life
Everything’s Okay – A recounting of an Uncle Bill’s numerous losses in the rural. Despite all his misfortunes, he did not despise life and could still say, “Everything’s okay.”
Just Waitin’ – Just about everybody’s waiting for somebody or something.
Pictures From Life’s Other Side (A Picture From Life’s Other Side) – A look at life’s reality. While it gives us a chance for happiness, it’s far from perfect. We would all have our share of fun times and days of miseries.
Death and After Life
Beyond the Sunset and The Funeral – Sadness grips the heart at the thought of losing a loved one. Preparing yourself to cope, as difficult as it may sound, is better than turning into an emotional wreck.
“Ramblin’ Man” – Whether this is how Luke personally sees himself or not, the message speaks truth to all of us. We’ve had those days when we ventured on some of life’s adventures.
The Unreleased Recordings: Gospel Keepsakes 1
It’s a three-disc set featuring 54 songs collected from Mother’s Best Flour’s broadcasts in the 50’s. Half of those performances were on faith and Christian living. For time’s sake, we’ll only mention 15.
Though the singer Hank Williams got owned by the system of his secular profession, Luke (meaning “light-giver”) strove to live up to the standard of his sacred religion.
The tracklist is as follows:
- (I’m Gonna) Sing, Sing, Sing
Joyful praises and singing to the Lord at the prospect of someday joining your loved ones in glory.
- I heard my Savior Calling Me
As mentioned, Luke’s the spirit of Hank hampered by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. His silent cry is the longing to respond to the call of the Savior.
- Precious Lord, Take my Hand
There’s a huge price to wealth and fame if not managed well. It may include your freedom and even losing your own self. Hank failed to do just that. Hence, Luke’s the one to voice out this plea of surrender to the Lord.
- I’ve Got my one-way ticket to the Sky
That “one-way ticket” is Christ and there will be no turning back.
Judas, one of Jesus’ handpicked disciples and friend. Sadly, only a friend can betray a friend. He plotted with the authorities and sold his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. He repented but it’s too late.
A favorite among Hank William’s gospel songs.
- Farther Along
A gospel classic which he solemnly sang and presented well.
The Unreleased Recordings: Gospel Keepsakes 2
One of Jesus’ parables about a man mugged on the road to Jericho. Two pious men passed by. They saw the wounded man, but could not be bothered to help. Finally, a man from the despised city of Samaria came and saved the man’s life.
The cutting truth still speaks today. Churches tend to get busy with their little programs at the expense of neglecting works of charity.
- When The Fire Comes Down
Despite the gloomy mood and words of doom, Hank opted for smooth singing.
- Drifting Too Far From the Shore
A metaphor for souls fascinated by the waves of thrill. Gradually, they leave the safety of their salvation.
If Hank had survived, maybe he had the chance to go back to his spiritual roots.
- Lonely Tombs
Musing on death, dying is surely a lonely experience. Well, except if you had been living with the Lord, then you’ll be resting in peace.
- Where the Soul Never Dies
No more tears, sickness, and pain on that fair land of joy! But, do you know what the other good news is? We have an eternity to spare! Our present troubles could not even compare to that.
- Where He Leads Me
Forsaking all for the Savior who is worthy of our devotions. (And we could not help but wonder what could have been if Hank did not become a superstar.)
He DID see the light, and perhaps he had long wanted to return. Sad that it was too late for him. Again, had he lived longer, he could have surrendered his life to the Lord and would have been restored.
What’s Next for Luke the Drifter?
Through Luke the Drifter, Hank was freed to examine his own religious convictions. In the same vein, other country artists who have had religious upbringing followed suit. We have Ferlin Husky, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash for instance.
Reading the lyrics of the songs Hank picked for Luke’s recordings, we can make two assumptions. First, we have already described in the preceding paragraphs. And as his chosen name for his alter ego implied, this righteous, preacher side of Hank was slowly drifting.
Second would be this, given another life, Hank would be Luke. This persona was his idealized self – far from the womanizer and alcoholic that he had become. Understandably, he may have wanted to be remembered as “Luke the Enlightened.” Reality check, of course, people have heard of his misbehaviors. Still, they loved his music. He is, after all, a superstar and a legend.
Going back to the vulnerable man, fans could only hope for the best that the Lord accepted Hank. He’s done a lot of things he wasn’t proud of and we wanted grace to be applied in his case.
In “Men with Broken Hearts” penned by Hank himself, he once told a journalist that a man who fell was the same man before that. His knowledge of God’s mercy was still strongly infused in him when he wrote,
“You have no right to be the judge, to criticize and condemn. Just think but for the grace of God it would be you instead of him.”
Basically, he’s asking for understanding and grace from people who may condemn him for his mistakes.
While we also cannot speak for God, there’s one thing we are certain of. God has mightily used Hank or Luke’s influence in spreading his message of love through the gospel songs they’ve recorded.
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