This Day In History: June 11

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On June 11, 1949, country singer Hank Williams Sr., takes to the microphone of the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast for the first time. That debut remains one of the most famous in the history of the legendary live country-music performance program. He electrified a live audience at Ryman Auditorium that called Williams out for six encores and had to be implored not to call him out for more in order to allow the rest of the show to go on.

In the tragically short life of country legend Hank Williams Sr., there were many broken relationships, both personal and professional, that resulted from his self-destructive behavior. One such relationship was with the most important institution in his chosen field: the Opry, which had been broadcast weekly on WSN Nashville since 1925. Shortly before it cost him his life, Hank’s drinking cost him his membership in the Opry, just three years after his triumphant debut.

Hank Williams was only 25 years old when he was invited to appear for the first time on the Grand Ole Opry. As a young man growing up dirt poor in southern Alabama, he began supporting his family at the age of seven by shining shoes and selling peanuts. But by 14 at least, he was already performing as a professional musician. The life of a “professional musician” playing the blood-bucket honky-tonks of the Deep South bore little resemblance to the lifestyle that would later become available to him, but it was there, in country music’s backwater proving grounds, that Hank Williams developed his heavily blues-influenced style and began writing his own music. Williams left music behind during WWII, but then he went to Nashville in 1946 hoping to sell some of his songs. Quickly signed to a publishing contract by one of Nashville’s most prominent music publishers, Fred Rose, Williams soon had a recording contract with MGM and his first hit record with “Move It On Over” (1947).

Williams’ heavy drinking had already earned him a reputation in the industry, however—a reputation that ruled out an invitation to appear on The Grand Ole Opry. It was the Opry’s biggest competition, The Louisiana Hayride, that first exposed Williams to a wide radio audience, but when his 1949 record “Lovesick Blues” became a monumental popular hit, the powers that be in Nashville relented, and Williams made his Opry debut. His performance on this day in 1949, during which he performed six encores of “Lovesick Blues” for a wildly enthusiastic live audience, led to regular appearances over the next three years, until the Opry fired Williams in July 1952 over his heavy drinking. Six months later, Hank Williams died of alcohol-induced heart failure at the age of 29.