Could it be that the most important and influential bloodline in country music history actually has a lost branch? Country History X Episode #11 delves into this complicated and convoluted story, while now a 4th generation of performers have emerged looking to carry on the Hank Williams legacy.
• The Country History X Podcast looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.
• This is a story Saving Country Music has been following and reporting on in one form or another since 2011. This is the most updated, and most thorough telling of the story to date.
• A good companion to this episode is the Hank Williams Family Tree of Performers.
• This is one of those Country History X episodes where listening is especially encouraged, since the episode is enhanced with interviews and other audio, but a full transcript and sources can be found below for those who prefer reading.
Other Country History X Episodes:
Episode #10: Marty Robbins Saves Life of NASCAR’s Richard Childress
Episode #9: Country Music’s Most Important Artifact
Episode #8: Randy Travis Versus Lib Hatcher
Episode #7: Johnny Cash, Joseph Stalin, & the Morse Code Crack
Episode #6: Waylon Jennings and the Cocaine Bear
The King of Country Music. The Hillbilly Shakespeare. In a word, Hank. There’s a reason Hank Williams was an inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s very first class. In a short period starting in the early 40’s and ending abruptly in 1953, he would transform country music from hillbilly hokum to an art form revered across the United States and World, and impart a songwriting legacy that looms as large as any other, and still to this day.
Sure, dying poetically in the back of his Cadillac on New Years Day, 1953 has allowed the legacy of Hank Williams to achieve mythological status, and leaving us at the age of 29 meant there was no opportunity to sully his grandeur by a late-career decline. But here many decades later, there is no sign Hank’s memory and influence will ever fade. If anything, time has reaffirmed his lasting importance.
When talking about the famous families of country music, The Carter Family is and always should be given deference as the official First Family of Country Music. There are other important bloodlines in country that have given way to three or more generations of performers as well, like the Cash family, which has close ties to the Carters, and the performing legacy springing from the family tree of Willie Nelson. But arguably the most important and influential bloodline in country music history is that of the Hank Williams clan.
Considering that assessment, what if I told you there was potentially a missing branch on that family tree, and one that has gone mostly overlooked and unreported for years due to the taboo and intrigue surrounding it? This is the story of the lost bloodline of Hank Williams, and the search for Hank Williams IV.
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We know for certain that Hank Williams had at least two biological children: performer, superstar, and Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Williams Jr.—who was the only child from the tumultuous relationship between Hank and Audrey Williams. And then there is Jett Williams. Jett is the daughter of Hank Williams and love interest Bobby Jett that Hank was bunking with between his marriages to Audrey Williams and Billy Jean Jones. Jett Williams was born five days after Hank Williams passed away. Initially she was adopted by Hank’s mother Lillie, but when Lillie died in 1955, Jett became a ward of the State of Alabama, and later was adopted, not knowing that Hank Williams was indeed her father until the early 1980’s.
Though Hank Jr. initially fought it at every turn, Jett Williams was finally recognized as a legitimate heir to Hank Williams in 1985, and became co-executor of the Williams estate with Hank Jr. Since then, the two have had a “go along to get along” relationship, and Jett Williams has worked extensively to help keep her father’s memory alive. Jett Williams has also been a performer and recording artist in her own right, toured with a version of Hank’s backing band The Drifting Cowboys for a spell, and has released multiple albums.
But depending on who you speak to, there’s the potential that a third biological child of Hank Williams is out there. That’s right, there might be another branch on this legendary family tree in country music.
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. Often helping Lilly with these boardinghouses was Hank’s cousin, and Lilly’s niece, a woman named Marie McNeil. But some claim that behind-the-scenes, Lilly’s boardinghouses were also bordellos. According to Hank Williams biographer Colin Escott, one of the numerous sources for this information is a man named Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald.
Who is Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald? We know for sure that he’s the son of Marie McNeil, who remember was Hank Sr.’s cousin, so Butch would probably be in a position to know. And who is Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald’s father? Well according to multiple sources, it very well could be Hank Williams himself.
In Colin Escott’s Hank Williams biography from 2004, it says quote, “Hank’s cousin, Marie, was some two years older than Hank, born in Garland [Alabama] on May 8, 1921. She’d lived with Lilly’s family [a.k.a Hank Sr.’s mother] 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.”
Colin Escott continues quote, “In 1942 [Marie] 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, [Hank] come in and he said, ‘There’s my Butch.’ ” What has never been resolved is whether Hank imparted more than a nickname.” Unquote.
One of Colin Escott’s sources for information that Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald might very well be the first son of Hank Williams is Butch himself. Escott says quote, “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.”
Butch is recorded saying in the Hank Williams biography quote, “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.” Unquote.
The potential that Hank Williams had some sort of relationship with his cousin Marie McNeil—and the potential she even had his son—has become part of popular lore surrounding the Hank Williams legacy, however subtle the inferences have been. In the 2016 biopic film on the life and death of Hank Williams called I Saw The Light, there is a scene where Hank is flirting with a girl named “Marie” on the porch of his mother Lilly’s home before Lilly breaks the pair up.
Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald is retired now, but for years he ran a small engine repair shop in Montgomery, Alabama. The easiest way to resolve if Butch is truly the son of Hank Williams would be some sort of paternity test. But by all accounts, Butch doesn’t want to bother with finding out if Hank Williams is his true father. Or if Butch does know for sure, he doesn’t see the value in either certifying that as public knowledge, or making a fuss for his fair share of the Hank Williams estate, with would be handsome.
According to Colin Escott’s biography on Hank, after seeing the struggles Jett Williams went through to win a proper share of the Hank Williams estate, Butch just doesn’t want to hassle with the same process. The biography states quote, “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.” Butch states in the biography quote, “I don’t see the sense of fighting a battle, to lose it all even if I was to win.” unquote.
What makes Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald’s situation different from Jett’s is he’s already considered a part of the extended Hank Williams family. Fighting a legal battle would mean fighting with his own family members, and potentially, cementing a family secret as public knowledge. So that’s how the matter has been left—a mystery for perhaps the most serious Hank Williams fans to ponder over, but a question to never be fully answered.
But there is a situation that has arisen over the last few years that has complicated matters, and created renewed intrigue into whether Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald is indeed a son of Hank Williams, and if he represents a third branch on the Hank Williams family tree.
What we know for certain is there’s a legitimate Hank Williams III. Born December 12, 1972, Shelton Hank Williams was the first and only child between Hank Williams Jr. and his then wife Gwen. Just like his father—Randall Hank Williams—Shelton’s middle name was Hank, making it possible for him to carry on the Hank Williams name. Hank Williams Sr.’s real name wasn’t even Hank, it was Hiram Williams. Hank was the nickname. But nobody would dispute Hank Sr., Hank Jr., and Hank3 as the proper chain of custody for the Hank Williams name.
First making his way in punk and metal bands and installing garage doors to make a living, it appeared perhaps the third and potentially final member of the Williams clan who could indisputably adopt the “Hank” name may not perform country music at all. But when a paternity suit had a judge telling him to “get a real job,” Shelton Hank acquiesced, and signed a deal with Mike Curb of Curb Records. Just like Jr., at first they tried to dress Hank3 up as a Hank tribute act, and they had him playing tourist shows in Branson theaters to refine his chops.
But shortly thereafter, Hank3 rebelled, finding his inspiration in punk music and from modern day throwback hillbillies such as Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and soon people though they were seeing and hearing the ghost of Hank Williams himself, that is until he’d bust into his self-described “Hellbilly” music and the fangs would come out. Perhaps most importantly—especially after the release of his 2006 magnum opus album Straight to Hell—Hank Williams III inspired an underground in country music that previously had only existed in spirit.
But everybody believed Hank3 was the terminus of the Hank Williams stage name, unless of course, Shelton Hank had a male son and imparted him with the Hank moniker, and that son chose to become a performer. The child Hank3 had that resulted in the paternity suit against him was a son, but his given name was Coleman and he was given the last name of his mother at birth since Hank3 wasn’t originally in the picture. And as Coleman grew from a boy to a man, there never seemed to be any desire by this 4th generation member of the Williams clan to take up the family business.
When asked once if there was any potential Hank IV lingering out there somewhere, Hank3 responded quote, “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.” Unquote.
But then, and completely out of the blue, in early 2021, and at the age of 30, Shelton Hank Williams III’s son Coleman decided he wanted to get into music too. Adopting sort of a similar style to his father’s punk-infused version of country, perhaps Coleman could have taken on the Hank name if he wanted to. But instead, he decided to circumvent any controversy it might have caused, and simply adopted the Roman numeral “IV” as a fourth generation performer in the direct bloodline of Hank Williams, and as Hank Sr.’s great grandson. Officially Coleman performs as “IV and the Strange Band.” He also has made the effort to legally change his last name to Williams.
So that’s cool that the Hank Williams bloodline will continue in music for a fourth generation. It’s also appropriate here to mention Sam Williams, who is also a son of Hank Williams Jr. and his third wife Mary Jane Thomas who Jr. married in 1990. Sam is also a music performer, as are his half sisters Holly Williams, and Hilary Williams, both of whom are highly regarded as well. Another offspring of Hank Jr. and the full sister of Sam Williams was Katie Williams, who died tragically in a car accident on June 13th, 2020.
If you want to see a full rundown of the Hank Williams performing clan, you can find it on SavingCountryMusic.com under the title, “The Hank Williams Family Tree of Performers.”
So that pretty much covers all of the offspring from the Hank Williams Jr. bloodline at the moment, and aside from Hank Williams III, none of them is named Hank. But there is a performer out there that is claiming the Hank Williams IV moniker, at least as a stage name. That’s right, none other than the grandson of Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald—the potential oldest son of Hank Williams Sr. himself—has stepped forward to claim the Hank 4 name.
His real name is Ricky Fitzgerald, and he wasn’t raised by his biological parents, but by his grandfather Butch. When Ricky Fitzgerald was 4 or 5-years-old, he started performing Hank Williams songs, including at little festivals and functions held in Montgomery, Alabama 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 quote/unquote “Lost Highway” band. Though he always performed under the name Ricky Fitzgerald, the name Hank Williams IV was also thrown around as a stage name.
In 2011, when Saving Country Music first started researching this story, a phone call was made to Butch Fitzgerald’s small engine shop in Alabama to try and get more information about the use of the name. 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.
However, by 2016 when Ricky Fitzgerald was 17-years-old, he was operating a Facebook page under the name “Hank Williams IV,” was posting videos as Hank Williams IV, and the questions started anew.
What is for sure is that Ricky Fitzgerald is not a son of Hank Williams III and was not named Hank at birth, 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 a legitimate great grandson of Hank Williams? There is certainly a good chance that he is. If nothing else, the fact that Marie McNeil (a.k.a. the cousin of Hank Williams Sr.) is Ricky Fitzgerald’s great grandmother, means that he is at least blood kin to the Hank Williams family, even if there are some degrees of separation.
So trying to get some solid answers, in 2016—with Ricky Fitzgerald now grown and using the Hank IV name, and the Hank Williams movie I Saw The Light from that year creating renewed interest in Hank Williams—I ran down Hank Sr.’s potential son Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald once again to see if he had any new light to shine since speaking with biographer Colin Escott in 2004.
(audio plays of phone call)
“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’s book doesn’t help solve the mystery, it complicates it even more. Butch did verify that, quote “Lilly’s [Hank’ Sr.’s mother] youngest sister was my mother’s mother.”
That means that Lilly’s niece Marie McNeil was Butch’s mother. Butch goes on to say that he spoke to Hank Williams Jr. about the use of the “Hank Williams IV” stage name, and that Jr. was fine with it, and that it was more a name others started calling Ricky as opposed to something they had planned out.
“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.” Unquote.
What’s for sure is that over time, Ricky Fitzgerald has matured to sound just like Hank Williams, or Hank Jr. whenever he wants.
“Hank Williams IV is nothing more than a stage name,” Ricky told Saving Country Music in 2016. “My real name is Ricky Fitzgerald as everyone knows.”
Just like Butch, Ricky explains that “Hank Williams IV” was something that was adopted more by others as opposed to the purposeful acquisition of a stage name initially.
Ricky explains, quote. “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 ?’ 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.”
“I’d like to make it a lifelong pursuit,” Ricky continued. “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.” Unquote.
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.
What’s for certain is the Hank Williams III and the “IV and the Strange Band” camp don’t feel Ricky Fitzgerald has a right to use the name, and neither do some fans. And remember, there is still no certainty that Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald is a son of Hank, and nobody seems to be interested at all in turning over DNA to determine it for sure, or if they do have information, to share those findings with the public. I did reach out to the Hank3 and Coleman Williams camp to add any additional comments if they wished, as well as Ricky Fitzgerald since it had been a few years since I’d spoken with him initially.
So the ultimate answer on if Hank Williams had a third child, and if that resulted in a third bloodline on this legendary family tree remains inconclusive. But perhaps that’s appropriate. Just like Hank Williams himself that seems almost more myth than man now, this family mystery that may hold an incestuous secret is perhaps better left unsolved. Either way, that’s the way it remains at this moment, while the music remains cemented in the legacy of American culture, and as strong and influential as it ever was.
Hank Williams: The Biography – Colin Escott (2004)
Saving Country Music – “Tracing Bloodlines and Preserving Traditions: The Story of Hank Williams IV” – 2016
Saving Country Music – “The Hank Williams Lineage Continues with Hank3’s Son ‘IV’“
Special thanks also needs to be given to performer and Hank Williams historian Joey Allcorn.