Hank remembered in Opry tribute

— The Grand Ole Opry paid tribute to Hank Williams 50 years after his death, recalling a man whose honest, cutting songs about cheating, drinking and loneliness changed the direction of country music.

Williams' son, Hank Williams Jr., and grandson, Hank Williams III, took the stage with a string of other performers Saturday at the Ryman Auditorium.

"Everybody who ever sang a country song since Hank Williams came along has been influenced," Sharon White Skaggs of The Whites said after the group played "Move It On Over" for the packed auditorium.

Vince Gill called Williams "the greatest singer-songwriter who ever lived," and sang the melancholy "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Little Jimmy Dickens performed the Cajun-tinged "Jambalaya," Hank Williams III performed "Howlin' at the Moon," and Hank Williams Jr. did the thumping "Kaw-Liga" and other classics.

Hank Williams' June 11, 1949, Opry debut is etched in country music lore. He sang "Lovesick Blues" and was called back for an unheard-of six encores. Williams would spend the next few years as a regular on the program, but alcoholism hurt his performances and caused him to miss shows.

He was asked to leave in 1952 with the intention that he would sober up and return.

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AP Photo

Country music star Hank Williams Jr., right, and Little Jimmy Dickens pay tribute to Williams' father, Hank Sr., during a special Grand Ole Opry performance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hank Williams Sr.'s death Saturday, at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

But Williams never played the Opry again. At age 29, while on the way to a concert in Canton, Ohio, he was found dead in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Year's Day 1953. The official cause of death was heart failure.

Williams' songs, with their twangy expression of lost love and sadness, seem better suited to the honky-tonk than the Opry stage. The lyrics are often brooding, with lines such as "I'm gonna find me a river, one that's cold as ice. And when I find me that river, I'm gonna pay the price."

Until Williams, country music and the Opry had been dominated by a brighter, upbeat style.

Williams' songs have been recorded by pop and rock icons as well as country stars, and he is enshrined in both the rock and country music halls of fame. A 2001 tribute album, "Timeless," includes covers of his music by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow and Beck, among others.

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