Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

Insights navigation:

[ Insights ]

RSS feed

Don Williams comments

Hank Williams songs still haunt the mind
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   01/10/2003)

I discovered the very place where yearning and loss merge with beauty to form another, more complex emotion--call it heartbreak--when I was just a kid. It was in a Hank Williams song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," in the lines that went...

The silence of a falling star

Lights up the purple sky,

And as I wonder where you are

I'm so lonesome I could cry.

Those bittersweet lines, coming as they do after verses about whippoorwills and train whistles or time crawling by, in that same tender song, strike deep in a young heart. The particular words I felt the most were " I wonder where you ar-are," that dynamic phrase that abandons the C-chord to pick up the G again as the melody waltzes its sad way home.

What Williams could do with three chords and a handful of words is still wondrous to hear. Two or three nights ago I took up the guitar to see if I could strum through "Your Cheatin' Heart" and three simple chords two-stepped me through that heartbreaking song.

Hank Williams sought deliverance from pain the way a tune seeks its key, and in his search for transcendence, he created wondrous lyrics and melodies. Songs like "The Lost Highway" and "Cold, Cold Heart" have been known to make grown men cry, though tough guys don't talk about it.

I once heard Kris Kristofferson--who could occasionally match Hank for pathos and poetry with songs like "Me and Bobby McGhee" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down"--introduce a song at the Civic Coliseum with these words: "If you don't like Hank Williams then you can kiss my..." let us say posterior. It was an extreme statement, but I knew what Kristofferson meant. He meant Hank could move a grown man to tears but Kris was too tough to say so exactly, so he swaggered.

My late father, also named Don Williams, was a gospel singer who used to play and sing Hank songs around the house occasionally. "I Saw the Light" was a favorite, and one that evoked quite opposite emotions from any of the songs mentioned above. Joy and optimism drive these words...

Now I'm so happy,

No sorrow in sight,

Praise the Lord,

I saw the light.

But then, Williams chronicles the full range of human emotions. "Kawliga," with his poor old wooden heart is funny and touching at once. "Move It On Over" and "On the Bayou" are upbeat, earthy songs, as is "Hey Good-lookin'" ("what you got cookin', how's about cookin' somethin' up with me?").

But those are exceptions to prove the heartbreaks rule in Hank's world.

It's easy to be judgmental and write him off as just another poet or singer lost to despair, drink and drugs. You need only look to his last, mythic night, as he lay dying in the backseat of a Cadillac somewhere between Knoxville and West Virginia, for evidence.

What's lost when you strike that judgmental pose is any understanding of what it must have meant to be Hank Williams--a fragile if ornery creature who could evoke with three chords and a few syllables the extremes of joy, despair, wonder and beauty--the heartbreak some of us never forget upon first hearing a Hank song.

I both heard and sang a few in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2003, the 50th anniversary of Hank Williams' death. I was at a party in Nashville when the New Year dawned. Realizing I was missing "Hank's Last Night," a celebration in Knoxville featuring R.B. Morris and other stalwarts of the Knoxville scene, I suggested we all sing a few songs in memory of Hank. And so we did, good old songs, like "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?" and "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You"--crooning snatches and grabs of half-remembered lyrics from a dozen old Hank classics along the way. Some at the party said we were pretty bad, but it felt good to sing those old songs anyway, for they live at the intersection where subtle chord-changes bow to yearning and loss, then take them by the hands and slow-dance them home.