The first time Hank Williams appeared on The Grand Ole Opry, he brought down the house. On June 11, 1949, the lanky 25-year-old walked up to the microphone and began singing his No. 1 hit, "Lovesick Blues." As his daughter, Jett Williams, exclusively explained to Closer Weekly (in the magazine's latest issue, on newsstands now!), "He was a guest, he didn’t have his band or anything."
The Opry had resisted booking Hank, who already had a reputation for heavy drinking, but they couldn’t ignore the rising star. "He went on and he got six encores!" Jett marveled. "That became one of his signature songs. They called him the 'Lovesick Blues' boy."
Jett, a singer-songwriter, doesn’t deny her father had demons — mostly brought on by the spina bifida he was born with that gave him lifelong back pain — but she recalled he had qualities not many saw. "A public perception of my dad would have him a very sorrowful, lonely person that drank and was depressed," Jett, 65 — who was born five days after her father’s death at 29 of a heart attack — said. "But if you look at his music, ‘Hey, Good Lookin,’ ‘Jambalaya,’ all of those are tongue-and-cheek, happy songs. He had a great sense of humor, and there are great stories told about him."
Hank’s death on Jan. 1, 1953, while he was being driven to a gig in Ohio, was probably triggered by his addictions. His devoted mother, Lillie, adopted Jett. When Lillie died, an Alabama couple adopted the two-year-old, but Jett didn’t discover who her father was until years later. In 1985, she successfully sued for her rights as one of Hank’s heirs, along with his son, Hank Williams Jr., 69.
Jett now says "everything is great" with her family and she likes to share stories about her dad. "He was a generous person," Jett noted of a call she received from a DJ who’d known Hank. "His child had been born with a cleft palate and he told me, 'Your dad called me and said, I’m going to send you a blank check, and whatever that baby needs, you just fill it out.'"
Her dad "also loved a good joke!" Hank’s steel guitarist Don Helms told Jett, "My dad had a cigar box he called ‘The Cussing Box.’ He told [his band], 'You all boys and myself, we have to clean up our language!'" When they swore, they put a quarter in the box. Once, when they were running late to a show after getting lost, Hank "took out $5 and stuck it in the cuss box, saying, 'I’m going to need every damn one of them!'"
These stories make Jett question, and understand, Hank’s reputation. "If you’re drinking and taking drugs, how do you write all that music?" she wondered. "You also have to remember how much pressure was on him. Everybody’s expecting him to write a hit song every week. He’s got his mother, he’s got [first wife] Audrey, he’s got my mother [Bobbie Jett], all of that pressure."
But Hank’s legacy live son. "If you ask who influenced Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Norah Jones… he’s still influencing the music," said Jett, who accepted a Pulitzer Prize for songwriting on her dad’s behalf in 2010. "The lyrics are just like a painting. He could write a song so when somebody hears it, they felt like, ‘He wrote that song for me.'"
BMG Worldwide agrees. The music company that’s worked with everyone from David Bowie and David Crosby to John Legend and Bruno Mars just signed on as Hank’s new label. "I’m hoping that this will allow him to reach another generation," Jett said. "It just goes to show you, 65 years after his death, he’s still out there!"
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