On August 11th, 1952—70 years ago today—one of the most notorious moments in country music history occurred. The original King of Country Music, and the genre’s first undisputed superstar, Hank Williams, was unceremoniously fired from the institution that he helped bring to prominence, and that helped make him a household name: The Grand Ole Opry. Though it happened now 70 years ago, Hank’s firing by the Opry is a moment that is still cited by some fans as an injustice, and still stirs controversy to this day.
The firing of Hank Williams was not without probable cause. Constantly presenting issues for the Grand Ole Opry stemming from his alcohol abuse, Hank Williams would miss rehearsals, turn in drunken performances, and generally cause issues for the legendary radio show’s managers and producers. Especially reeling after his divorce from his first wife Audrey Sheppard on May 29th, 1952, Hank Williams had hit a low point in his life. Not only drinking heavy, Hank was also on narcotics due to his chronic back pain, and especially heartbroken because Audrey would not allow him to see Hank Jr., who was still a toddler at the time.
This all came to a head in the second week of August, 1952. Opry Manager Jim Denny and Carl Smith visited Hank Williams at his home in Nashville, and told him that the management at radio station WSM was demanding he be let go. Denny had pleaded for one more chance for Hank, but told Hank he absolutely had to be at the Grand Ole Opry on August 9th for a performance, as well as a Opry-sponsored show the next day. When August 9th came, Hank was once again a no show, and showed up to the Opry-sponsored event the following day drunk. Left with no other choice, Opry manager Jim Denny fired Hank Williams.
Though at the time Hank Williams tried to put on a brave face and act like he’d outgrown the Grand Ole Opry, others say it devastated the singer and songwriter inside. It also devastated Opry manager Jim Denny. “It was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life,” he later recalled. It also devastated many of Hank’s fellow Opry stars. In the Hank Williams biography by Colin Escott, Ernest Tubb is quoted as saying,
I heard Jim [Denny] on the telephone. He said, ‘Hank, that’s it. You gotta prove to me. You call me in December, and I’ll let you know about coming back to the Opry next year.’ When Jim hung up the telephone, he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I had to do it. I had to let Hank go.’ When I was in the parking lot, I ran into [National Life chairman] (an Opry sponsor) Mr. [Edwin] Craig. He knew, and he said, ‘What do you think Ernest?’ I said, ‘Well, I hate it, but I saw tears in Jim’s eyes, and I know it was the hardest thing he ever had to do. He told me he was going to try and get Hank to straighten up.’ Mr. Craig said, ‘I’m sure Jim means well, but it may work the other way. It may kill him.’ I was feeling the same way.’
In 1952, the Grand Ole Opry was everything in country music. It defined what country music was for many, and was the direct line to country fans thanks to the Saturday night presentations being simulcast all across the country. The firing of Hank Williams definitely didn’t mean the end of the road for him, but it most certainly exacerbated his problems that would spell the end of Hank Williams in the coming months. Even though the Grand Ole Opry had forsaken him, the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana continued to offer Hank performance spots. Hank Williams continued to often show up drunk.
On October 18, 1952, Hank Williams married Billie Jean Jones, who would soon become his widow. Hank would never get his opportunity to “come back to the Opry next year” as Jim Denny promised if he straighted up and flew straight. Hank Williams died in the back of his powder blue Cadillac on New Years Day, 1953 en route to a performance in Canton, Ohio.
It is from the heavy and momentous history of the Grand Ole Opry that a passion swells up in the hearts of many traditional country fans every time the WSM signal goes live from the Opry House, or whenever these fans walk out into the bowl of the audience to behold the expanse of the stage and gallery of the Opry, that iconic barn backdrop, and the talent that stands inside the circle. The space seems to harbor the very ghosts of country music’s past with all those memorable songs and performances hanging in the air with such a thickness, a sense of reverence immediately strikes the soul, and at times can overwhelm one with emotion.
But to some, the issue of the firing of Hank Williams still remains an unresolved stain in the Opry legacy. In 2003, the grandson of Hank Williams, Hank Williams III, started the Reinstate Hank movement in an effort to get the Grand Ole Opry to recognize his grandfather, and ceremoniously give Hank his reinstatement to the institution that he was never able to earn due to his untimely death. The Reinstate Hank online petition now has over 62,000 signatures on it, with even more signatures in the physical Reinstate Hank book that Hank3 would take around with him on tour.
Dan Rogers was named the Grand Ole Opry’s executive producer in 2017, and has since instituted significant changes to the institution, including being more inviting to older performers, being more open to up-and-coming and independent performers, inviting more diversity onto the Grand Ole Opry stage, and also seeing the return of at least some Opry performances to both television, and live streaming. Under the leadership of Dan Rogers, the Grand Ole Opry has been revitalized in many ways.
However, Dan Rogers has still remained unwelcoming to the idea of Reinstating Hank Williams, however symbolic or ceremonious it may take place. Speaking in February of 2020, Dan Rogers said,
“Hank Williams will always be a treasured past member of the Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry is made of living, breathing artists who can contribute to the show, and to whom the Opry can give back. We have a long list in the member gallery of folks who have been members of the Opry from Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who preceded what Opry membership even meant. … Had Hank Williams lived, there is little doubt in my mind that…I would hope he would have returned to the Opry and all would have been great and right in the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t.”
This is all that Hank Williams III and Reinstate Hank supporters have been point out for going on 20 years. There is no qualm with Opry members vacating their membership role when they die. It’s about how when he was living, Hank Williams meant more to the Opry arguably that anyone else in the institution’s history, and the Opry meant a lot to Hank Williams. “There is not a single Opry night that happens where his influence isn’t felt. And there are many, many, many Opry shows where his music is sung,” Dan Rogers says.
Ceremoniously Reinstating Hank would be a way to mend wounds, and incidentally, would make for a good piece of positive publicity for the Grand Ole Opry. As Dan Rogers says himself, it would make everything “right in the world” when it comes to Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry. If Hank Williams were around today and with what we know about addiction and mental health, Hank would not have been fired. He would have been given the help he needed to recover.
However, that goal by Hank Williams III and other Hank Williams fans to see hank reinstated remains elusive. Nonetheless, on this anniversary of his firing each year, Hank Williams fans remember his legacy, and the impact he left on country music and the Grand Ole Opry that like the Opry institution itself, will never die.