Happy 100th, Hank Williams: 10 Great Rock Revamps of Hank Tunes

Celebrate the country king’s centenary with some killer covers

Hank Williams (Image: Wikipedia)

Hank Williams, who would have been 100 today, was the original rock star, with all the good and bad that implies.

The downside of that status is that he was a hard-living bad boy. He didn’t burn the candle at both ends, he threw the whole damn thing into a bonfire. Hank, who released “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive” weeks before his death, didn’t make it past his twenties. The upside: Between 1947 and 1952, Williams released some of the most hard-hitting, emotionally intense music ever made, with the temptation of sin whispering in one ear and the dream of salvation in the other. 

Love, lust, anger, devotion, laughter—if it’s a feeling that matters, it’s in Hank’s songs, rendered so expertly that artists from just about every genre have been compelled to cover them ever since. Most of the mavericks who fall even loosely under the rock umbrella bear his influence one way or another. And over time, tons of them have paid Williams the ultimate compliment by interpreting his classic tunes.

In honor of Hank’s centenary celebration, here’s just a handful of the most memorable adaptations.


Bill Haley and His Comets “Move It on Over” (1958)

Near the start of his recording career, before he had even worked up a sweat, Hank helped build the template for rock ‘n’ roll with the raucous country boogie of 1947’s “Move It on Over.” Probably the best-known rock version is George Thorogood’s barroom-blasting 1978 recording. But back in the ‘50s, rock ‘n’ roll godfather Bill Haley returned Hank’s favor by tackling the tune with his Comets, adding some souped-up steel guitar licks and the kind of rockabilly riffing the song helped make possible.


AUDIO: Bill Haley and His Comets “Move It On Over”


Elvis Costello & The Attractions “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)” (1981)

Having reached the top of the New Wave heap with their first few albums, Elvis and the boys took a left turn by traveling to Nashville to honor some of their influences by making the country covers album Almost Blue. With Music City legend Billy Sherrill producing, most of the tracks were fairly faithful to their old-school origins. But on the opener, the band added a balls-to-the-wall punky abandon to Hank’s lovelorn lament that’s somehow perfectly in keeping with his rebellious spirit.


AUDIO: Elvis Costello & The Attractions “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)”


The Replacements “Hey Good Lookin’” (1982)

If The Replacements were around in Hank’s day, they probably would have been hardcore honky tonkers worthy of backing him up. They certainly would have matched the notorious tippler drink for drink. A low and slow take on “Hey Good Lookin’” first appeared as a live B-side to their ‘86 single “I Will Dare.” But more recently, their studio outtake of the tune turned up as a bonus track to 1982’s Stink, with the band breathing fire and Bob Stinson unleashing a fearsome beast of a guitar solo.


AUDIO: The Replacements “Hey Good Lookin'”


The Residents “Jambalaya” (1986)

Even America’s most dedicated musical saboteurs love Hank so much they dedicated an entire album side to his songs. Half of Stars & Hank Forever was occupied by Williams tunes and half by John Philip Sousa compositions, with the band’s take on both being equally demented. Unsurprisingly, The Residents take Hank’s work further from its origins than anybody. Their version of his ode to Cajun life boldly removes every trace of Louisiana from the music, replacing it with a creepy cross between Giorgio Moroder, a David Lynch soundtrack, and some unsavory swamp-dweller mumbling in your ear. 


AUDIO: The Residents “Jambalaya”


The Screaming Blue Messiahs “You’re Gonna Change” (1986)

Speaking of swampy, that’s a pretty good description of The Screaming Blue Messiahs’ take on one Hank’s angriest tunes, “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave).” The Messiahs were among the most rage-filled bands of the ‘80s British post-punk scene, so they tucked into Williams’ account of a long-suffering lover fed up with his mate and amplified the bile while swamping up the vibe.


AUDIO: The Screaming Blue Messiahs “You’re Gonna Change”


Cowboy Junkies “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1988)

There’s no shortage of heart-rending adaptations of Hank’s saddest, most poetic song. But the Cowboy Junkie’s laconic, lo-fi version from their breakthrough album The Trinity Session, famously recorded in a church, adds a deadpan vibe that lets the thing breathe and allows the misery to rise to a level more potent than a dozen Smiths songs.


AUDIO: Cowboy Junkies “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”


The Breeders “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” (1993)

When The Breeders were at their biggest, busily defining the alt rock template of the early ‘90s with Last Splash, they still found time to salute the legacy of Hank. Amid all the crashing, bashing, and cannonballing, they cut an acoustic version of Hank’s heart-on-sleeve ballad that highlights the Deal sisters’ harmonies. It was originally available as the non-LP B-side to their “Divine Hammer” single, and eventually added to the deluxe version of Last Splash.


AUDIO: The Breeders “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”


The The “Honky Tonkin’” (1995)

In 1995, Matt Johnson a.k.a. The The released an album of Hank covers cheekily titled Hanky Panky. Given Johnson’s predilection for the shadowy side of the street, much of the record is doomy and downcast, even when he takes on the uplifting spiritual “I Saw the Light.” So it’s no surprise that he manages to turn the roof-raising party tune “Honky Tonkin’” into a graveyard blues somehow soaked with twangy terror.


AUDIO: The The “Honky Tonkin'”


Keith Richards “You Win Again” (2001)

To some extent, Keith Richards rises to the top of this heap just by virtue of being Keith Richards. In other words, he brings so much slippery soul, offhand elegance, and unvarnished emotion to this slow-burner that a Hank newbie might easily be convinced the stalwart Stone had written it. 


AUDIO: Keith Richards “You Win Again”


Social Distortion “Alone and Forsaken” (2011)

As one of the bands that helped put cowpunk on the map, Social Distortion is no stranger to rocking up a country tune. Here they take on perhaps Hank’s darkest, most emotionally harrowing song, originally given a folkish feel, and they crank their punkometers up to 11, propelling Williams’ dark night of the soul with some sonic rocket fuel. 


AUDIO: Social Distortion “Alone and Forsaken”


Jim Allen

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Jim Allen

Jim Allen has contributed to print and online outlets including Billboard, NPR Music, MOJO, Uncut, RollingStone.com, MTV.com, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb.com, and many more. He's written liner notes for reissues by everyone from Bob Seger to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and is a singer/songwriter in the bands Lazy Lions and The Ramblin' Kind as well as a solo artist.

2 thoughts on “Happy 100th, Hank Williams: 10 Great Rock Revamps of Hank Tunes

  • September 20, 2023 at 8:37 am

    I visited the marker in wv place of his last stop.i have been a fan all my life.i would have liked to meet him.ask him tell me your story


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