Hank Williams' 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Hank Williams
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Country singer Hank Williams poses for a portrait circa 1940 in Nashville, Tenn.

We don't know how much arguing one can make about this statement – Hank Williams was the greatest songwriter in country music history. Sure, that is a massive statement, given such composers as Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, Don Schlitz and writer-artists as Merle Haggard have graced the genre with their greatness.

But, look at the Hank Williams song catalog. There's a mixture of up-tempo classics such as “Kaw-Liga” and “Howlin' At The Moon” that have been a part of the country consciousness for years, but maybe the true mark of what made Williams so unforgettable during his short twenty-nine years on earth was his ability to captivate the minds and attention of America with a ballad that oozed with heartache and regret. We could have expanded this list, but these ten performances represent American music perhaps as well as anyone has ever done it. These songs will never die, and nor should they!

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10. Hank Williams – “Your Cheatin’ Heart”

One of the first posthumous releases for Williams, the inspiration for this song was reportedly his first wife - and subject for so much of his material - Audrey. He actually wrote the song while traveling from Music City to Shreveport, as he described his first wife to his then-fiancee, Billie Jean. The song served as the title of the 1964 film version of Williams’ life, which starred George Hamilton.

9. Hank Williams – “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”

This 1952 recording - which featured Chet Atkins on guitar - was intended to be little more than a novelty number, but this Hank Williams song became a very important one in his catalog, as the song was on the hit parade at the time of his famous last ride from Knoxville to Oak Hill, giving the song a more tragic sheen.

8. Hank Williams – “Honky Tonk Blues”

If at first you don’t succeed - try again, and then again if the second attempt fails. Williams and Fred Rose attempted to record this frisky number three times before they hit the mark in late 1951. This song hit No. 2 in 1952 for Williams, and nearly three decades later, Charley Pride took the song to the top as a single from his tribute album There’s A Little Bit Of Hank In Me.

7. Hank Williams – “Hey Good Lookin’”

According to legend, Williams penned this countrified song of lust and yearning for Little Jimmy Dickens while traveling on an airplane with his fellow Grand Ole Opry member, as well as comedian Minnie Pearl and her husband Henry. Williams decided to record the song himself, and the result became a number one song for the singer. It is actually the song that Williams is performing in the film clip from the Kate Smith Evening Hour in March 1952 that was later used in the 1989 video for “There’s A Tear In My Beer.”

6. Hank Williams – “Cold Cold Heart”

This Hank Williams song drips with pain and loneliness, and indeed it should. The singer was visiting Audrey in the hospital, and leaned down to kiss his wife, when she turned away and lashed out to him. He took his pain and wounded pride, went home, and wrote this timeless classic, which was a huge country hit for himself, and a classic pop record for Tony Bennett.

5. Hank Williams – “Lost Highway”

A rarity in his catalog in the fact that he did not write the song, this haunting track about a man headed down a painful path in life was penned by blind musician Leon Payne. The song was one of just a handful of Williams releases during his lifetime to not make the Top Ten (#12), but the lyrics of this song were ones that Williams knew all too well - and seemingly lived every day of his too-short existence.

4. Hank Williams – “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”

Yes, the song is one of country music’s most iconic ballads of all-time. Yes, the song stands as a classic Hank Williams composition. That’s a given. But, put all that aside for just a minute. Listen to the words of this song, and you can’t help but be affected by the wistful pain the singer feels about still carrying a torch for his former lover. It’s a classic, sure, but still - after close to seven decades - one of the most gripping vocal performances in country music history.

3. Hank Williams – “I Saw The Light”

A critical element of country music’s past - at least in the format’s “Golden Era” was the need of the performers to show their spiritual side. Perhaps Williams’ best attempt in that vein came with this 1948 release. The song has been recorded countless times over the years by a wide variety of artists, and also is the subject of one of the saddest moments of Williams’ life. After a show with Minnie Pearl, the singer was reportedly depressed, and she began to prod him to sing this Gospel standard. Williams replied “Minnie, there ain’t no light.” Roy Acuff performed the song at Williams’ funeral in Montgomery in January 1953.

2. Hank Williams – “Lovesick Blues”

One of the greatest ironies in country music history is that the song that represented the breakthrough of Hank Williams - THE greatest songwriter in country music history - was not from his pen. Rather, he dipped into a classic well for this song - originally recorded by Elsie Clark in 1922. This seminal Hank Williams song - written by Cliff Friend and Ernie Mills - was not only his first chart-topper, but served as the centerpiece for one of the biggest days in country music history - June 11, 1949 - when Williams performed the song for his debut at the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium - receiving SIX encores!

1. Hank Williams – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”

Along with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “When I Call Your Name,” if you were to poll fans about their favorite country song of all time - this one from 1951 would inevitably top the list. Interestingly enough, the song started off as the B-side of “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” Elvis Presley called the song one of the saddest he ever heard during his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii NBC special, and the song stands as one of the most covered of Williams’ career - with versions from B.J. Thomas, George Jones....and even Pro Football Hall of Fame member Terry Bradshaw, who took the song to No. 17 in 1976.