We love to talk about country music as a continuum, and how a good song will always be relevant in country music no matter when it was written or released. We’ve seen this happen many times in country music history, from Dwight Yoakam having a hit with “Streets of Bakersfield” performed as a duet with the song’s original performer Buck Owens in 1988, or more recently Chris Stapleton reprising “Tennessee Whiskey,” which was once a hit for George Jones in 1983 (and recorded by David Allan Coe the year before). Stapleton’s version has now gone 6x Platinum, and is one of the biggest songs in country music in the last decade.
One song in particular illustrates this phenomenon, and it was recorded 70 years ago tonight, October 25th, 1950, though it never saw the light of day for another 40 years. Some people recall “Tear In My Beer” originally written and recorded by Hank Williams as a classic in line with all of his other legendary songs. But Hank never even intended to release the song. He only cut it to be a demo for “Big” Bill Lister who was looking for a drinking song.
Collin Escott tells the story in the Hank Williams biography.
Capitol’s West Coast-based chief of country A&R, Ken Nelson, scheduled a session for Lister on Friday, October 26th. “I told Hank I needed a beer drinkin’ song,” says Lister, ‘and he said, ‘Don’t worry ’bout it, Big un, I got you covered. I got one that’s hotter’n a pistol.’ ”
Hank cut a demo on the night before the sessions, right after he’d finished prerecording some radio shows. After the session, Lister threw the demo acetate, which had no markings on it, into a box of records at his house … Hank was more or less off the road by then, and his troupe had disbanded. The acetate then went back to San Antonio with the Listers and sat out in their yard under a trap for a few years before being moved up to the loft where, as Lister says, it’s hot enough to fry eggs in July. It was discovered in the mid 80’s when Lister was cleaning house.
Bill Lister’s son did occasional work on Hank Williams Jr.’s firearms, and the next time Jr. came to San Antonio, he was presented with the acetate. Since the music and vocals were too sparse to release it as it was, the idea to release the song as a duet took shape.
Though today we might think creating both a song and video from a simple demo recording that only contained Hank and his guitar would be relatively easy. But in 1989, the technology to merge Hank’s original recording with Hank Jr. and a band helping fill in the blanks was cutting edge.
It was even more impressive when a video was produced that was able to superimpose Jr. playing along with his father to the song, based off of old footage of Hank Williams singing “Hey Good Lookin'” on the Kate Smith Evening Hour in 1952, with an actor’s lips dubbed to make it look like Hank was singing “Tear In My Beer.” The legendary rock photographer Ethan Russell directed the video.
The result was a smash both in audio and video form. Despite being a 40-year-old composition, “Tear In My Beer” became a hit, making it to #8 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Hank Williams Jr. made sure to share some of the proceeds from the song with Big Bill Lister down in San Antonio. The song also went on to win the 1990 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. It was the first Grammy Award for Hank Williams, and the first and only Grammy Award win for Hank Williams Jr.
And remember, 1989 is near the height of the MTV revolution when the medium of video was a major deal in music. The “Tear in My Beer” video was so well-received, it won both the CMA and the ACM Award for Video of the Year.
The success of “Tear In My Beer” also helped Hank Williams Jr. win the 1989 ACM Entertainer of the Year for a third year straight. During his acceptance speech (see below), Hank Jr. mentioned the video specifically. “The video with daddy…” Hank Jr. starts in before pausing, with his lips quivering, clearly emotional in the moment, “…was the most special thing I ever did, in my life.”
That might the most vulnerable moment of the otherwise boisterous Bocephus ever captured on film. As the crowd applauds, the camera cuts to a young Hank Williams III, who a decade later would begin his own career in country music, helping to keep the Hank Williams name and legacy alive.
Today, many may take “Tear In My Beer” for granted, when the song could very well have ended up discarded in a dumpster, or it could have never been recorded at all if Bill Lister wasn’t on the hunt for a drinking song. It makes you wonder how many other songs Hank Williams had swirling in his noggin that we never heard.
On this night in 1951 when Hank found the time to record the demo for “Tear In My Beer,” and 40 years later when it became a big hit in country, it proved that a good song with a simple sentiment can often withstand the ultimate test of time, and be entered into eternal cultural relevance.