Icon Hank Williams receives Pulitzer citation

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 13, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Hank Williams, the country pioneer who is among the most influential singer-songwriters in music, was given a special Pulitzer Prize citation.

The Pulitzer board awarded the late singer for his lifetime achievement, based on a confidential survey of experts in popular music.

“I don’t think any country artist cast a longer shadow than he does, both as a songwriter and a performer,” Jay Orr, vice president of museum programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame, said Monday. (A Williams family exhibit runs at the Hall of Fame through 2011.)

“His songs are master works. But there’s a mystique about his character that still fascinates the people who have come after him. … He was the romantic ideal of the hillbilly Shakespeare and his cultural legacy continues to grow.”

The citation notes Williams’ “craftsmanship as a songwriter” and his “pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.” He joins other recent special citation recipients Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane on a short list of American masters.

Williams died Jan. 1, 1953, at the age of 29, cutting short a career that forever changed American popular music. Hits such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” ”Cold Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” have been covered by hundreds of musicians across several genres. More than 55 years after his death, he remains a central figure in country music.

Orr noted that musicians as diverse as George Jones, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Beck have plumbed the rich vein of Williams’ music over the years. Williams’ descendants — children, Hank Jr. and Jett, and grandchildren, Hank III, Holly and Hilary — continue to add to his legacy.

Born in Alabama, he grew up during the Depression, dreaming of playing country music. His first big break came when music publisher Fred Rose offered him the chance to record his own songs. His first release for MGM Records, “Move It on Over,” was a hit in 1947 and he went on to record 11 No. 1 songs.

Orr said Williams took his “honky tonk confessionals,” to working-class people who identified with Williams’ honesty.

“He really helped to legitimize that confessional mode with songs like, ‘Cold Cold Heart’ — ‘Why can’t I free your doubtful mind/and melt your cold cold heart?'” Orr said. “That’s something we’ve all wondered about a woman at one time or another.”

Holly Williams said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that she just finished a tour in Europe and that Williams’ legacy is appreciated there as well, showing his universal appeal.

“Who else has been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to Coldplay to Buddy Guy?” she wrote. “He deserves this honor on every level and the family is really happy about this. His genius will always live on and it’s nice to know that people are still remembering him with accolades more than 50 years after his death.”