Tracing Bloodlines and Preserving Traditions: The Story of Hank Williams IV

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It was nearly five years ago now that Saving Country Music first delved into the subject of whether there was indeed a legitimate fourth generation member of the most legendary name in country music history: Hank Williams. Of course we all know about the original Hank Williams, whose birth name was actually Hiram King Williams, and who was country music’s first superstar. Then there is Hank Williams Jr., birth name of Randall Hank, who is indisputably second in the legendary bloodline, and quite the accomplished performer himself. And then there is Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, whose birth name is Shelton Hank Williams, who also is a music performer in country and other genres. And this is where the famous name and bloodline is though to have ended, at least for the moment.

Hank3 does have a son. In fact it was the serving of paternal court papers on Shelton Hank that inspired the 3rd generation performer to sign a major label deal with Curb Records in the 90’s, and start a country music career of his own. But Hank3’s son is not named Hank, though if someone alive wanted to lay claim to being Hank Williams IV, it could be him. But he’s not doing so. Hank3’s son doesn’t appear to be motivated to be in music at all at the moment. If Hank3 happened to have another son and name him “Hank,” then, and only then, would we have an indisputable match for the name Hank Williams IV.

Of course, some of this talk is open for discussion about what constitutes enough of a familial relation to a famous name for someone to claim it as their own. The birth name of Hank Williams wasn’t even “Hank,” and it’s the middle names, not the first names of Hank Jr. and Hank3 that allowed them to adopt the famous name.

And that brings us to a 17-year-old performer named Ricky Fitzgerald. In September of 2011 when Saving Country Music first delved into this subject (and Ricky was only 12), there were a lot of questions after videos and some other matter had been posted online claiming that Ricky was “Hank Williams IV.” Since the only way someone could indisputably be named Hank IV was to be a son of Hank3, this had a lot of folks wondering.

As far as Ricky Fitzgerald, or anyone else claiming to be an unclaimed son of Hank3, Hank3 himself said at the time,

No, absolutely not. The only Hank IV I’ve ever heard about was Howard Stern’s old midget drunk. I know for a fact there’s no other unclaimed children [of mine] out there. Anybody that was a bastard son, you know they’d be coming after me for money.

So that should mean that Ricky Fitzgerald, or anyone else calling themselves “Hank Williams IV,” don’t have a legitimate claim to the stage name, right? Well, when it comes to Ricky Fitzgerald, it’s a little bit more complicated.

We know that Hank Williams had at least two biological children: Hank Williams Jr., and Jett Williams. Jett was born out of wedlock, and in the 80’s she fought in court to win rightful claim to part of the Hank Williams estate. This set up Hank Jr. and Jett as the beneficiaries and executors of the estate as the two verified heirs.

But depending on who you speak to, there’s the potential that a third biological child of Hank Williams is out there.

His name is Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald.

Hank Sr.’s mother Lilly made a living by running boardinghouses in Alabama when Hank was growing up and getting started in the music business. But some claim that behind-the-scenes, Lilly’s bordinghouses were also bordellos. According to Colin Escott’s biography on Hank Williams, Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald is one of the sources of this info.

Who is Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald? We know for sure that he’s the son of Hank Sr.’s cousin Marie McNeil. And by some accounts, Hank Williams was Butch’s father.

From Colin Escott’s Hank Williams biography:

Hank’s cousin, Marie, was some two years older than Hank, born in Garland [AL] on May 8, 1921. She’d lived with Lilly’s (Hank Sr.’s mother) family since she was twelve. Her father had never let her go to school because she had a withered arm and a prominent strawberry birthmark. The other kids, he thought, would make fun of her. Marie helped Lilly at the boardinghouses, cooking and cleaning, and, by some accounts, running the girls … In 1942 she became pregnant, and at some point the following year, she married a serviceman named Conrad Fitzgerald but, by all accounts, never lived with him. Dr. Stokes at St. Margaret’s Hospital delivered the boy child on June 24, 1943. Hank nicknamed him Butch. “[From what I’m told],” said Butch, “when I came home from the hospital, he come in and he said, ‘There’s my Butch.’ ” What has never been resolved is whether Hank imparted more than a nickname.

From the time Butch, or Lewis, as he was christened, could first remember, he insists people put the word in his ear that Hank was in fact his father. “A lot of people walk up, and start telling you this, that, and the other. Momma had told a lot of people, [and] she hinted to me a lot of times, but she would never just come out and say it.”

For obvious reasons, many in the extended Hank Williams family, and Hank himself as a public figure, benefited from keeping the fatherhood of Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald a mystery. Even if Hank Sr. wasn’t the true father, the concern that he might be could have been enough to dissuade folks from finding out for sure. Years later, Jerry Lee Lewis would be publicly ostracized for marrying his second cousin. This would be an illegitimate child Hank sired with his first cousin.

As for what Hank’s opinions were on the matter, the Colin Escott biography says, “The musicians who lived with Lilly heard the rumors, but Hank neither confirmed or denied them. He acted in a caring, paternal way toward Butch.”

So how does Ricky Fitzgerald fit into all of this? Ricky Fitzgerald is the grandson of Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald, and was raised by Butch from an early age. Ricky’s parents, for whatever reason, were not in the picture for the majority of his raising.

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Ricky Fitzgerald at 8-years-old

When Ricky Fitzgerald was 4 or 5-years-old, he started performing Hank Williams songs, including at little festivals and functions held in Montgomery, AL at the Hank Williams Museum. Ricky at one point even had a white suit with black notes down the sleeves just like Hank Williams, and Ricky made a CD with his “Lost Highway” band. Though he always performed under the name Ricky Fitzgerald, the name Hank Williams IV was also thrown out as a stage name.

In 2011, when Saving Country Music was researching the first story on the “Hank Williams IV” name, a phone call was made to Butch Fitzgerald to try and help clear up the controversy. The phone call was not returned initially, but about six months later, Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald did finally return the call after finding the lost phone message, and said that “Hank Williams IV” was no longer being used in relation to Ricky. A website for Ricky Fitzgerald (that hasn’t been updated in years) also does not have any mention of “Hank Williams IV.”

However, now Ricky Fitzgerald is 17-years-old, has a Facebook page under “Hank Williams IV,” has been posting videos as Hank Williams IV, and the questions have started anew. The release of the new Hank Williams movie I Saw The Light has also stirred interest in the Hank Williams lineage and legacy.

What is for sure is that Ricky Fitzgerald is not a son of Hank Williams III, meaning that he probably has no indisputable claim on the “Hank Williams IV” stage name. But does he have Hank Williams blood in him, and is he Hank Williams’ great grandson? There is certainly a good chance that he is. If nothing else, the fact that Marie McNeil (later Marie Fitzgerald) is his great grandmother, means he is at least blood kin to the Hank Williams family, even if there is some degrees of separation.

Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald runs a small engine repair shop in Montgomery, Alabama, and by all accounts doesn’t want to bother with finding out if Hank Williams is his true father, which would be the best way to verify if Ricky Fitzgerald (aka Hank Williams IV) is the true great grandson of Hank Williams. According to Colin Escott’s Hank Williams biography, after seeing Jett’s struggles to win a proper share of the Hank Williams estate, Butch didn’t want to hassle with the same process. The biography states:

Marie [Butch’s mother] died on January 17th, 1991, without ever quite telling him who his father was, but there had been enough gossip for him to see a lawyer. Depositions were taken, although Butch is guarded about the advice he was given as a result. At some point, though, he decided that he would take it no further … he understands the financial and emotional cost of challenging for a share of the estate. “I don’t see the sense of fighting a battle, to lose it all even if I was to win,” he says.

Saving Country Music reached out to Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald to see if he was willing to speak more on his grandson Ricky’s use of the “Hank Williams IV” stage name, and to attempt to verify or update the information in Colin Escott’s Hank Williams biography about his bloodline.

“Everything’s lies,” Butch Fitzgerald insists on the phone. “I have a lot to add, but I can’t add, and I won’t add. Me and Colin Escott sat here right in my shop one day for four hours. Everything I told him, he went back and re-wrote, and everything he wrote was lies. That’s just like the new movie that’s out right now about Hank is all lies. Hank was not like that, period. I’ve been around 73 years, and I’ve heard all kinds of stories and heard all kind of things, and I’ve heard just about everything that can be told.”

Obviously, Butch denying everything said about him or attributed to him in Colin Escott book doesn’t help solve the mystery, it complicates it even more.

Butch did verify that, “Lilly’s [Hank’s mother] youngest sister was my mother’s mother.”

When asked point blank what his blood relation to Hank Williams is, “I ain’t gonna tell you that,” Butch responds, laughing. “We’re closer than you will ever know.”

Butch goes on to say, “That’s the reason Ricky gets the name Hank Williams IV. Me, Hank Jr., neither one care, ’cause me and Hank Jr. has talked about it and he said, ‘Hell, go for it.’ Ricky is carrying on a family tradition. He’s almost the only one left to really go on with the Hank Williams music. Ricky works hard at it. Ricky just keeps on working at stuff over and over until he gets it right.”

Saving Country Music then spoke to the 17-year-old Ricky Fitzgerald himself after he had had just finished a shift at his after school job at Food Outlet in Montgomery.

“Hank Williams IV is nothing more than a stage name,” Ricky insists. “My real name is Ricky Fitzgerald as everyone knows.”

Most every time Ricky introduces himself, whether on stage, in a video, etc., he uses both names, Hank Williams IV and Ricky Fitzgerald.

“Ever since my first performance, it stuck with me. But it really stuck when I had an interview (when he was 7-years-old) with the ‘Montgomery Advertiser’ that had the title ‘Hank Williams IV ?’ ” Ricky explains. “They had me in my white suit and everything on there. And basically ever since then they’ve been introducing me as Hank the 4th, and everyone around work and around here has been calling me Hank.”

Ricky Fitzgerld graduates high school in May, and will turn 18 in June.

“I’d like to make it a lifelong pursuit,” he says. “I’d like to get famous and make all kinds of money, but really I want to keep old time country alive. I don’t like this new stuff they got going out because it’s more like rock. I have been a big fan of Hank Williams ever since I was 5-years-old and I’ve been doing it ever since then. It’s been there all my life and I love it.”

So does Ricky Fitzgerald have a rightful claim to the name “Hank Williams IV”? Just like trying to trace Ricky’s grandfather Butch into the Hank Williams family tree, it’s complicated, and open to interpretation. If Ricky truly is the great grandson of Hank Williams, then he would have more claim to the name than most. But in the meantime, the young performer is just doing what he can to live up to the name.