Despite his short 29 years of life, Hank Williams left an undeniable legacy on the music world as one of the most influential country music artists of all time. We can partially credit that success to his first wife Audrey Williams, who helped manage Williams' career and was the inspiration behind many of his hit songs.
Hank Williams + Audrey Williams' Love Story
Audrey Mae Sheppard was born in Banks, Alabama in 1923. When she was just a senior in high school she married her first husband, James Erskine Guy, but the marriage was short-lived. They separated after their only child, Lycrecia, was born in 1941.
A couple of years later, Audrey met an aspiring musician by the name of Hank Williams and they fell in love. Audrey convinced Hank to move to Montgomery with her so that they could start a band together and Hank could start performing on the radio.
The couple was wed by a justice of the peace at a Texaco Station in Andalusia in 1944, just days after Audrey's divorce from her first husband was finalized. She quickly stepped into her mother-in-law's role as her new husband's manager and was instrumental in boosting his career. Though Hank failed his Grand Ole Opry audition in Nashville, Audrey convinced record exec, Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose, to give him a shot and Rose loved what he heard. Hank was granted a six-song contract which gained him enough notoriety to land a record deal with MGM Records.
As Hank's career became more successful, Audrey also longed to perform. She regularly performed with the Drifting Cowboys. She was featured on numerous recordings with her husband, including "Lost on the River," "I Heard My Mother Praying for Me," "Dear Brother," "Jesus Remembered Me," "The Pale Horse and His Rider," "Jesus Died for Me," "Help Me Understand," "Something Got a Hold of Me," "I Want to Live and Love", and "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies."
But Hank's alcohol abuse was causing a serious strain on their relationship. He was also suffering from extreme back pain due to spina bifida, which resulted in drug abuse as well. The couple welcomed only one child together, Randall Hank Williams, now known professionally as Hank Williams Jr., in 1949. Hank Williams also raised Audrey's daughter Lycrecia as his own.
"Of the two of us, I always considered myself the luckiest one because I got to do things with Daddy," Lycrecia Williams Hoover told The New York Times in 2008. "He would take me bowling a lot. He would go horseback riding and fishing with me. I just feel like Hank Jr. missed out on so much."
The addiction issues led to the downfall of their marriage. Audrey even told Hank he needed to choose between her and alcohol. On New Years' Eve 1951, Audrey had enough. There had been numerous infidelities, including Hank's affair with a woman named Bobbie Jett, which resulted in a daughter, Jett Williams (born after her father's death). She called her husband and said it was officially over and he allegedly replied "Audrey, I won't live another year without you."
The following June, the couple was officially divorced. Audrey won the house, Hank Jr., and half of Hank's future royalties if she never remarried, which she never did.
Despite their disagreements, Audrey Williams had a profound impact on Hank Williams — both personally and professionally.
"Had it not been for Mother, I just don't think Daddy would have gotten to Nashville unless somebody else could of got a hold of him and pushed," Lycrecia William Hoover told The New York Times. "Daddy, he liked to entertain. He was a genius, but Mother was the mastermind behind getting him where he needed to be."
Hank married Billie Jean Jones just months later on October 18, 1952. He died soon after on January 1, 1953. Following his death, Audrey paid Billie Jean $30,000 to stop referring to herself as "Hank Williams' Widow" and she complied. Billie Jean later married country singer Johnny Horton and became Billie Jean Horton.
The marriage of Audrey and Hank was brought to the big screen in the 2015 film I Saw the Light, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston as the iconic country music couple. The actors showcased the pain and difficulties the couple endured as a result of Williams' addiction issues.
It seems Hank and Audrey Williams never got over one another.
"After Daddy passed away, Mother blamed herself," Lycrecia Williams Hoover said. "She loved him and felt like she should have been able to keep him from drinking. Later, little by little, she began to drink, until she became an alcoholic too."
Audrey Williams passed away from heart failure on November 4, 1975, in her home of Nashville. Her son Hank Jr. went on to follow in his parents' footsteps and became a successful singer, as did Hank Jr.'s children, including Hank Williams III and Holly Williams.
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