Hank Williams Sr.’s posthumous hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” became closely associated over the years with the singer’s tragic life. It represents his penchant for injecting his real-life struggles into some of the most influential sad songs in country music lore. Beyond that, the song speaks of late life marriage struggles and represents his lingering impact on popular culture.
Based on the commonly told story behind the song, Williams may have written the first iconic country anthem about divorce.
While riding with his future second wife Billie Jean Jones from Shreveport, Louisiana to Nashville in 1952, Williams referred to ex-wife Audrey Sheppard as a “cheating heart.” That spiteful phrase led to a song, jotted down during the car ride by Jones. The lines Williams dictated, likely in a fit of rage, included “You’ll walk the floor, the way I do,” a probable hat-tip to Ernest Tubbs’ “Walking the Floor Over You.”
Even if it’s aimed at the former Audrey Williams, the song sounds more regretful than vengeful, making his late-life struggles with physical pain, heartache and addiction all the more sad.
Williams recorded the song that September with producer and publisher Fred Rose at what ended up being his last trip to the studio. “Kaw-Liga” and “Take These Chains From My Heart” round out the three posthumous chart-toppers recorded during the same session.
A Famous B-Side
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” hit shelves after Williams’ Jan. 1, 1953 death as the b-side to “Kaw-Liga.” This was definitely a case where the flip-side could’ve easily stood on its own as a single. It ranks alongside Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” as one of the top songs in popular music history to get bottom billing.
“Kaw-Liga” dominated record sales for 13 straight weeks between February and May, meaning a bulk of the record-buying public had a chance to flip over their new purchase and find another song that’d go on to become legendary. Meanwhile, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” also owned the contemporary Billboard charts at time, topping both the disk jockey and juke box charts.
A Pop Standard
Williams’ tear-jerker quickly entered the great American songbook, making it cover material for a wide range of artists. It cracked the top five of the pop charts later in 1953 via Joni James’ version. Men and women from different genres went on to cover the song, with the diverse list of artists including Nat “King” Cole, Connie Francis, Pete Fountain, the Andrews Sisters, Paul Anka, Frankie Laine, Beck, Ray Charles, James Brown and others not likely to record just any old “hillbilly” song. Beyond those crossover versions, the song entered various country singers’ catalogs for years to come.
The Perfect Parting Statement
When Williams died at age 29, he left behind a body of work that will probably always intrigue fans and country music historians. From a small town Alabama boy to the toast of Tennessee, he wrote songs that still move first-time listeners. As one of America’s great success stories and tragedies rolled up into one, he put his all into everything from the upbeat “Hey Good Lookin'” to another heart-breaker that gained traction after William’s life, “Lost Highway.”
Although it’s a step ahead of an Elvis movie yet many country miles behind Coal Miner’s Daughter, the 1964 Hollywood biopic on Williams titled Your Cheatin’ Heart pointed the early rock ‘n’ roll generation back to the early days of country music. Director Gene Nelson and leading man George Hamilton’s main contribution to Hank lore was a soundtrack featuring Hank Williams Jr. covering some of his father’s best-known hits.
In all, the late-life composition Williams considered his “best heart song” still defines him as a writer and a tortured soul whose own cover song choices, namely “Lovesick Blues,” still impact his public perception.