Hank Williams Sr.—The American Soft Power Missile

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, former Dean, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, a former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and former Assistant Secretary of Defense writes about he soft power of America—the Americana. [Softpower: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004)]The teenagers in Iran while posting the sign, "Death to America" would likely be wearing Levis jeans. I have traveled around the world and even in the remotest parts of the world where they may be running their television sets on DC power, one would be amused to find "Friends" adorning the screen—such is the power of Americana. When it comes to food, culture and music the world turns to US. Even the staunchest enemies of America would love to taste Americana. Joseph Nye theorizes that America wins its wars on its soft power and not necessarily on its hard power. One of the strongest elements of America's soft power is its music; whereas, the world hums to the tune of American hits, America's country music, which is indeed unique to America, has not found its place in the hearts of music aficionados. And that is for a good reason. Whereas the rock and pop, though indecipherable at times, do find a flowing medium somewhere in the gray matter of world teenagers, the country music is often alien to them. There really is no equivalent of an American Cowboy anywhere in the world.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill 
He sounds too blue to fly 
The midnight train is whining low 
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

I've never seen a night so long 
When time goes crawling by 
The moon just went behind a cloud 
To hide its face and cry.

Hank Williams's verses may sound melancholic but the world would have difficulty in relating to the atmosphere of a heart-broken country boy. I think the country music offers a view of America that is true American, not withstanding its redundancy of theme. If the world comes to appreciate the country music of America they will know more about America and they will love more what makes America—ordinary folks.

Hank Williams Sr., was a country music icon. And if we take him as an example of Americana, we can fulfill many prophecies of William Nye. And so here is the life story of Hank Williams. You decide if he would not make a good soft-power missile for the world.

On a warm night in June, 1949, with his first number one record spilling out of radios across the country, a frail young man walked onto the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for his Grand Ole Opry debut. Behind him lay nearly a decade of struggle and rejection in pursuit of this goal; ahead, a little more than five years in the limelight.

By 1953, literally worn out at twenty-nine, Hank Williams was gone. But he had given country music much of its standard repertoire, a new definition of stardom and a legend so enduring that he is still the model for countless singers and songwriters.

Born in Mount Olive West, Alabama (near Georgiana) on September 17th, 1923, Hiriam was the second child of Lon and Lillie Williams. Lon, a WWI veteran, was hospitalized during most of Hank's early life, leaving the boy's upbringing to his strong-willed mother. Small and fragile from the beginning (and afflicted with spina bifida), Hank may well have gravitated toward music as an alternative to sports. While living in Georgiana, he befriended Rufus Payne, a black street musician known as "Tee-Tot".

Years later, Hank would say that Payne had given him "all the music training I ever had", and most biographers consider Payne the source of the noticeable blues thread running through Hank's music. Hear a sample of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues"

At sixteen, living in Montgomery, Williams quit school and began his music career in earnest. He had made his first radio appearance on WSFA in late 1936 or early 1937, and would soon become one of the station's most popular performers. He also worked beer joints and regional shows with his band, already named the Drifting Cowboys. Lillie drove the group to venues in her station wagon and collected gate money. By the early 40s, Hank was one of the biggest draws in the region, and had come to the attention of several Nashville artists and music business luminaries. But his reputation as a singer was already matched by the one he'd built for drinking and unreliability. Most considered him an unsafe bet.

In 1943 Hank met Audrey Mae Sheppard, an Alabama country girl with a two-year old daughter, Lycrecia, from a previous marriage. Audrey learned to play stand-up bass (well enough, anyway, to play in the band) and began acting as manager.

They were married in December, 1944. She desperately craved a singing career, pushing for inclusion in the show at every chance. Her ambition, however, far exceeded her talent. Audrey would vie with Lillie for Hank's attention throughout the relationship. In 1946, she accompanied her husband to Nashville to meet publisher Fred Rose.