- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Hank Williams was only 29 when he died 50 years ago this coming New Year's Day. His recording career had lasted a mere six years, and three of his 11 No. 1 country singles including "Your Cheatin' Heart" would hit the charts in the year following his death.
"Hank's songs have stood the test of time," says guitarist Bill Kirchen, one of 11 musicians, many from the greater Washington area, who will be performing in the sixth annual "Tribute to Hank Williams" concert Dec. 28 at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria. (The concert also is scheduled Dec. 27 at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis and Dec. 29 at the Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg, Va.)
Organizers Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who have earned five Grammy nominations and won several Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies) for their traditional folk and bluegrass music, will join with Mr. Kirchen in a band backing up various performers singing Williams' songs.
Scheduled to appear in the tribute concert are acoustic recording artists Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group; bluegrass singer-songwriter Lynn Morris and her husband, bassist Marshall Wilborn; International Bluegrass Music Association bass player of the year Mark Schatz; fiddler Rickie Simpkins, founding member of the Virginia Squires and longtime member of the Tony Rice Unit; and pedal steel guitar player Dave Giegerich of the Hula Monsters.
"The idea is to have a band that can make that old country sound and people who appreciate that old country sound," Ms. Fink says, adding: "Hank Williams was able to pare down a song to the essence of what needed to be there. There aren't spare words; there aren't extra images. The sad songs are a direct line to loneliness, and at the same time, he did a lot of songs that were purely celebratory."
Williams biographer James Felton Hall Jr. writes that the singer-songwriter, born Sept. 17, 1923, was playing regularly on Montgomery, Ala., radio stations by age 13. At 14, he was winning talent contests performing his own compositions. In September 1946, he went to Nashville, Tenn., where he eventually recorded four songs with the Acuff-Rose publishing house. "Move It on Over" was his first MGM release and chart entry, in 1947. Despite his early success, he failed initially to impress the Grand Ole Opry and headed south to become a regular on the "Louisiana Hayride" radio show in August 1948.
Williams charted with "Honky Tonking" that year and by December had recorded "Lovesick Blues," which went to the top of the country charts an achievement that finally secured him a spot with the Opry June 11, 1949.
By 1952, however, his life began to sour. In May, he divorced Audrey, his wife of eight years and the mother of Hank Williams Jr., who would grow up to become a country star in his own right. Williams nicknamed his son "Little Bocephus" after a ventriloquist's dummy who appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.
Those close to Williams at the time say his drinking was getting worse as the year went on. Mr. Hall writes in his unofficial biography that Williams often missed performances or turned up too intoxicated to appear onstage. In August 1952, he was suspended from performing at the Opry.
His last recording session, on Sept. 23, yielded "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Kawliga," among other songs. Then he married again. His bride, Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, was 19 at the time of the ceremony, which was performed twice before paying audiences in New Orleans Oct. 19.
Early on New Year's Day 1953, Williams was traveling to an appearance in Canton, Ohio. When his young driver stopped for gas in Oak Hill, W.Va., he was unable to rouse his passenger in the back seat of the 1952 Cadillac. Authorities declared that Williams had died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, in which excessive use of alcohol weakens the heart muscle and consequently damages other major organs.
More than 25,000 fans attended his funeral Jan. 4, 1953, in Montgomery.
Ironically, among the Williams hits that got great airplay in 1953 was his prophetic "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
In the five decades since his death, few country artists have come close to his recording accomplishments 11 No. 1 singles and 25 other songs in the top 10 in six years.
Fewer still have had his lasting influence on country music, Miss Fink says.
According to Mr. Kirchen, "There are only a few people you could get away with doing a whole night of [their] music, and Hank's one of them."
The Washington area tribute concerts have grown in popularity, primarily through word of mouth. This spring, the cast will take the show to Vermont for two performances.
"There is something special about connecting with these lyrics," Ms. Fink says. "Here we are 50 years later, and these are some of the best country songs ever written. They stand the test of time. And with the Hank Williams' repertoire, it's going to be here 50 years from now."


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