The songbook of Hank Williams, born on September 17, 1933, has been leafed by hundreds upon hundreds of admiring artists, who have stood in line to profess the depth of his influence across decades and generations. From the vast aggregation of remakes of his superb, if all too short, catalog, we present ten of the finest interpretations of the man who, for so many, represents everything that country music stands for.
Ray Charles, ‘Your Cheating Heart’ (1963)
Among artists who put the soul into country music, and vice versa, the name of Ray Charles will always be in the conversation. He famously brought his hillbilly influences to the fore on the groundbreaking 1962 album Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, on which he recorded not one but two Hank Williams songs, “You Win Again” and “Hey Good Lookin’.” The second volume, in 1963, featured two more, which also stand among the best-loved songs by Hank and Ray alike, “Take These Chains From My Heart” and “Your Cheating Heart.”
“[I] always loved [country music] as a kid,” Charles told NPR in 1998. “That was the only time my mom would let me stay up past 9:00 on Saturday night, to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. I was very fascinated by country music…I was just impressed by the sound…and I was fascinating what these guys could do with these banjos and these fiddles and the steel guitars.”
The Carpenters, ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’
Richard and Karen had few equals as interpreters of songs from their childhood, and in their ability to update classic songs for a new generation. On the Carpenters’ Now & Then album of 1973, they took a Williams composition that they could barely have remembered from when it was first released and turned it into a pop hit in the UK and Japan. The original “Jambalaya” was released in the summer of 1952, when Karen was only two and Richard not yet six, but they made it their own, adding a flute detail to complement countrified guitars and their velvet harmonies.
George Jones, ‘Honky Tonkin’’
“Possum” was, in some ways, the inheritor of Williams’ crown as the next king of country music, and not only deferred to him as his greatest influence, but openly admitted in his autobiography that, as a young marine in 1953, he cried when he heard of his death. In 1960, he released George Jones Salutes Hank Williams from one remarkable three-hour session, which included this fine version of Williams’ rambunctious original. Just two years later, Jones went back to the same well of inspiration for another LP, My Favorites of Hank Williams.
The Rolling Stones, ‘You Win Again’
It wasn’t just a love of blues that bonded Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Both were huge fans of country music, as they have proved repeatedly on record over the decades, from “Country Honk” via “Sweet Virginia” to “Faraway Eyes.” During the sessions for the 1978 landmark Some Girls, they cut a highly credible version of Williams’ desolate “You Win Again,” which made its official debut on the album’s deluxe 2011 reissue. By then, Richards had cut his own version for the 2001 multi-artist tribute to Hank, Timeless.
Johnny Cash with Nick Cave, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’
The late-career reawakening of Johnny Cash’s recording career under the admirable guidance of producer Rick Rubin brought The Man In Black endless plaudits. At their best, the sequence of American Recordings brought out the gnarled majesty of Cash’s voice and breathed new life into some all-time classic compositions. So it was when Johnny sang Hank’s tear-stained ballad for the second time, having cut his first version a lifetime earlier for 1960’s Now, There Was A Song! LP.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was subsequently cut over 350 times, by everyone from Ernest Tubb to Al Green, and it was in Elvis Presley’s setlists in the 1970s. The song came back to Cash for 2002’s US platinum-selling American IV: The Man Comes Around, this time accompanied by Nick Cave.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers, ‘Move It On Over’
The second album by the blues-rock heroes, 1978’s Move It On Over, repeated the pattern of its self-titled predecessor of a year earlier with another selection of seminal sides, updated for a post-punk audience. The title track, their rocking take on Hank’s 1947 track, was an FM radio favorite from the set, fashioned with the help of producer Ken Irwin into the signature sound of Thorogood and the boys.
Patsy Cline, ‘Lovesick Blues’
It was relatively rare for Williams to record non-original material, but he came to own this Cliff Friend-Irving Mills composition. First recorded by one Elsie Clark in 1922, the song was thus already more than 25 years old by the time Hank released it in February 1949. “Lovesick Blues” was later visited in a range of styles by Linda Ronstadt, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Etta James, George Strait, Madeleine Peyroux, and scores of others. It the UK, became the second of three consecutive No.1 singles for UK-born, Australia-raised Frank Ifield, in 1962. We feature Patsy Cline’s 1960 single release.
Rick Nelson, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’
Rick Nelson was some way into his career transition from pop star to country troubadour when he released 1967’s Country Fever, his follow-up to the equally classy Bright Lights and Country Music of the year before. Both LPs featured such stellar players as James Burton, Clarence White, and Glen Campbell, and in among his takes on namesake Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Jimmie Rogers’ “Big Chief Buffalo” were three songs closely associated with Hank: his own “You Win Again” and this version of “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” released by Williams in 1951, as well as Fred Rose and Hy Heath’s enduring “Take These Chains From My Heart.”
Jason and the Scorchers, ‘Lost Highway’
Nashville’s new wave/roots rockers had some fun with the unconsolable sentiment of a Leon Payne song that Williams had sung definitively. We include it to demonstrate how Hank’s unique voice echoed across so many musical congregations. Houston Press wrote of the raucous update that Jason Ringenberg and the band “re-imagined [‘Lost Highway’] as a metal-tinged explosion of sinful joy and gladly volunteered to jump into the fires of hell where, presumably, Hank had already ventured.”
Emmylou Harris with Mark Knopfler and his band, ‘Alone and Forsaken’
The aforementioned Timeless album gave a host of major artists the opportunity to wear their admiration for the Williams songbook on their sleeve. Johnny Cash was there, this time with “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night,” along with salutes by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Beck, Sheryl Crow, and many more.
Two tracks featured firm friends Harris and Knopfler, one of “Lost On The River” (a song recorded by Hank and his wife Audrey) and the other of the bleak “Alone and Forsaken,” which Hank recorded in 1949, although his version wasn‘t released until 1955, after his death. Early in 2023, Williams’ original augmented the soundtrack the hugely popular, dystopian HBO series The Last Of Us.
Stream the Hank Williams 100 digital compilation.