Hank Williams’ too-brief career set the bar for country music. He was a charismatic showman, and a gifted vocalist who could make his virtuosic singing sound like passionate, folksy speech—listen to the way his delivery on “Cold, Cold Heart” makes his split-second yodels sound like his voice is cracking from emotional pain. But what he could do better than anybody else was write lyrics that expressed complicated states of mind in simple, foursquare language (“now I know your heart is shackled to a memory”). “Cold, Cold Heart” was originally stuck on the B-side of a single, apparently on the grounds that shatteringly sad slow songs didn’t sell. Nonetheless, it ended up being an enormous hit, and once pop singer Tony Bennett sold a pile of copies of his own version, other performers started noticing that Williams wasn’t just a country star—his songs were powerful enough to translate into any idiom.
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