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. W

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 Nashville's 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 her 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. offered 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. 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.

During Saturday's show, Hank Williams Jr. honored one of his father's earliest influences, the late Rufus Payne, a black blues musician in Alabama known as "Tee-Tot," whom Williams says taught his father to play guitar and sing the blues. Payne's son, Henderson, joined Williams on stage in a wheelchair. As he began to pick the blues on an acoustic guitar, Williams Jr. urged the crowd to "close your eyes and go back, and you can see him in 1932 on the streets of Montgomery, [Ala.]"

The show's promoters had promised a pairing of Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III for a rare joint performance, but it never happened. The two men, who by many accounts have a strained relationship, did not perform on stage together. Hank Williams Sr.'s daughter, Jett Williams, paid tribute to her father in a separate performance at the Opry on Friday night.


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