The True Story About Hank Williams' Marriage To His First Wife, Audrey

It seemed to be love at first sight. Audrey Mae Sheppard first met Hank Willams when he was performing with a traveling medicine show near her home in Banks, Alabama, in the summer of 1943, according to "Family Tradition — Three Generations of Hank Williams." He asked her to marry him on their second date. And while their actual wedding wouldn't come for nearly a year, they seemed destined for a long life together. But the truth was murkier than that. At the time, Audrey was already married and had a daughter, Lycrecia. Her first husband had abandoned her but before she could marry Hank, she needed a divorce. Hank's drinking was another problem that was there from the start.

Audrey helped launch Hank Williams' music career, acting as his manager, and pushed him to pursue both songwriting and performing. Besides directly influencing Williams' career, their relationship was so contentious that many of Williams' songs, including "You're Gonna Change (or I'm Gonna Leave)" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," were inspired by their rough patches. They divorced and got back together before finally calling it quits for good in 1952, a little more than six months before Hank Williams' death on January 1, 1953, weeks after he married his second wife, Billie Jean Jones.

First divorce and motherhood

In the early years of Audrey and Hank Williams' marriage, they lived close to the bone, working together in a shipyard in Mobile during World War II while they pursued musical careers, per "Family Tradition." Audrey wasn't a talented singer, but she was good at helping to foster her husband's career until his drinking and physical fights finally took their toll. On May 26, 1948, Audrey and Hank Williams divorced. But less than a month later they were back together, according to "Hank Williams: So Lonesome."

The couple then moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Hank joined "The Louisiana Hayride." The live radio show rivaled Nashville's "Grand Ole Opry" and would launch the careers of everyone from Elvis to Johnny Cash. Audrey sometimes performed with Hank, but they would turn down her microphone, and her push to be a star allegedly damaged Hank's career early on.

On May 26, 1949, Audrey gave birth to their son Randall Hank Williams, better known as Hank Williams Jr. Soon, the family moved to Nashville where Hank joined the "Opry" and they amended their divorce decree. Things were looking up. But in Nashville, Hank kept Audrey off the stage. She did get a shot at recording an album for Decca, but the results were panned by the press, per "I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams."

The end

In 1950, Audrey Williams had to be rushed to the hospital after contracting an infection following an abortion, illegal at the time, which she hadn't planned to tell Hank about, per "I Saw the Light." When Hank Williams returned home from touring and went to see her in the hospital, she blamed him. "It was you who caused me to suffer this," she told Hank (via The New Yorker). Hank allegedly responded that his wife had a "cold, cold heart," the germination for what would become one of his biggest hits.

Hank's heavy drinking and physical abuse led Audrey to leave him during the Christmas holidays in 1951, according to "The Hank Williams Reader." She'd had enough and sued for divorce again. Hank also filed for divorce, so he could have his say, alleging Audrey's pursuit of a singing career was to blame for their marital problems and that she was a spendthrift who burned through $50,000, the equivalent of nearly $600,000 today, in 1951 alone. In the divorce, Audrey won custody of Hank Williams Jr., along with their house and half of Hank's future royalties. She died in 1975 and is buried next to her ex-husband.