- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn.
Legend has it that when Hank Williams took the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time in 1949, he sang "Lovesick Blues" and was called back for an unheard-of six encores.
Williams would spend the next few years as an Opry regular, but his career at the premier country music program was cut short by erratic, self-destructive behavior, and soon after that, his life was cut short, as well.
Fifty years after his mysterious death at age 29, Williams' influence on the Opry remains large.
"If you had to divide the history of the Opry into three or four major eras, Hank would be one of those," says Charles Wolfe, author of "A Good Natured Riot," a history of the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
The Opry honored Williams this past weekend when his son, daughter and grandson performed at Ryman Auditorium. Daughter Jett Williams played Friday night, while Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III shared the stage Saturday in a rare joint performance. The Saturday show was televised live on the Country Music Television cable network.
Some call Williams' debut at the Grand Ole Opry "the night of the blue smoke" because the crowd is said to have kicked up clouds of dust with its wild applause.
"I'd never seen anything like it before and never seen anything like it since," says Little Jimmy Dickens, a longtime Opry star who was there that night.
"He had something about him that people loved."
A wiry man with chiseled features and a cowboy hat, Williams played raw, honest songs such as "Cold Cold Heart," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" and "Your Cheating Heart."
"Up until that point, country music was mired in the values and rhetoric of earlier days," Mr. Wolfe says. "Hank wrote about things people were really concerned about divorce, loneliness, separation, drinking real problems for real people."
Williams' growing fame and his bouts with the bottle and pills began to take a toll. He found it harder to keep up with the Opry's vigorous schedule, and he missed shows. His performances often were erratic.
"He went onstage a lot of times when he shouldn't have," Mr. Dickens says. He describes Williams as "the most moody man I think I've ever seen."
"One minute he'd be laughing and cutting up and telling funny stories, and the next minute, he'd seem to be in deep thought about something."
Opry managers eventually asked Williams to leave. They sent him back to the Louisiana Hayride radio show in Shreveport, La., where he had cut his teeth before coming to the Opry. Mr. Wolfe compares it to a minor-league farm club.
"They thought he'd go down there and straighten himself out and come back," he says.
Williams never made it back. He was found dead in the back seat of his Cadillac in West Virginia on New Year's Day 1953. He was on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. The official cause of death was heart failure.
Some credit his continued popularity to his rebellious streak, untimely death and, of course, his music.
"You felt that this man had lived every line that he wrote, and in most cases, he had," says Eddie Stubbs, a Grand Ole Opry announcer and on-air personality at WSM radio in Nashville.
Hank Williams Jr. says that despite his father's checkered history with the Opry, it is fitting that his music be commemorated there on the 50th anniversary of his death.
"It was his ultimate goal and dream to perform and be a member of the Grand Ole Opry," Mr. Williams says.

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