Author of the Month: Paul R. Nail

By Susan L. Peterson

The song lyrics and titles of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,’‘ “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “I Saw the Light” are probably familiar to most readers, even if you are not a country music fan. Over six decades ago, Hiram “Hank” Williams was the prolific singer/songwriter of these famous tunes and many others that still resonate today with his legions of fans. Their succinct phrases, emotional diversity and universal sentiments are what initially drew Paul R. Nail to this music legend.

Photo by Mike Kemp

Upon learning that Williams died of heart failure on New Year’s Day 1953 at the age of 29 in the backseat of his chauffeured Cadillac, Nail became even more curious about this now-legendary figure. He wondered what could have caused such a successful and popular singer/songwriter to die so young.

When Nail received a Ph.D. in psychology from Texas Christian University in 1981, he was not all that interested in country music. Undoubtedly, his interest in psychology and his penchant for research led him to try to find answers to his many questions about Williams. His decades-long investigation culminated in “A Psychological Biography of Hiram ‘Hank’ Williams: Much More to His Story, Volume I” published in May 2023. The book is being lauded as “the most comprehensive Hank Williams biography to date.”

“When I learned the truth—that Hank died of what was basically an unhealthy lifestyle, one brought on by years of severe back pain, binge drinking, chain-smoking, overwork, marital conflict, back surgery, overmedication, divorce, and some would say a broken heart—I knew that there had to be a tremendous story there to tell. I was not disappointed,” Nail said.

He first began researching his book in 1984 by reading everything he could about Williams. That’s when he discovered a “big hole” in the literature, one he sought to fill. Although Williams suffered most of his life with psychological issues, none of his previous biographers had been psychologists or had much training in psychology. Nail, on the other hand, could make these connections.

In 1995, Nail began gathering material from Williams’ aging friends, family and former band members while they were still alive. His research included personal interviews and written correspondence, as well as existing videos and audio programming from scores of Williams’ surviving radio programs.

A life-size statue of the famed country music legend, Hank Williams stands in the center of the Riverfront Entertainment District, one block away from the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala.

As a psychologist, Nail gained insights into the singer’s life that other biographers had not. The book covers Williams’ childhood in detail, including the effects of his father’s absence and having an overly domineering mother. He discusses Williams’ volatile marriage to his first wife, Audrey Williams, who reputedly was the inspiration for many of his songs. Healthwise, the singer suffered from congenital back issues that led to years of self-medication with alcohol and, eventually, overmedication with prescription drugs. Nail’s insights go far beyond the typical simplistic view that Williams was just another alcohol- and drug-abusing musical genius.

As a psychological biography, the book employs many psychological concepts to explain Williams’ life. These include transference, projection, sublimation and compensation. But, as one reader noted, “Nail boils down the science and makes it accessible.”

“Dr. Paul R. Nail, an international scholar of psychology with a lifetime of experience, has gifted us with a haunting, passionate, and fascinating biography of Hank’s life from beginning to end,” one reviewer said.

Nail worked in higher education in Oklahoma and Arkansas for 39 years as a teacher, researcher and author of dozens of articles in academic journals. He retired from the University of Central Arkansas in 2019. It is obvious that his professional research and interest in examining Williams’ life went hand in hand. As a psychologist and scientist, he separated fact from legend to help solve the mysteries surrounding this enigmatic man. Today, he continues to work on Volumes II and III and will be publishing Volume II soon.

He and his wife, Jenny, live in Conway and have three grown children. Jenny is the executive assistant for advancement and communications at Hendrix College.

Nail said that interested readers can get a copy of Volume I by contacting him at [email protected] or by writing to the publisher at [email protected]. The book is also carried by, Barnes & and

Author Paul R. Nail finds it ironic that Williams’ stardom has grown over the years while that of most of his contemporaries at the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry has faded. Four full-length motion pictures and at least three documentaries have been made about his life. Fans still flock by the hundreds each year to the Hank Williams Boyhood Home and Museum in Georgiana, Ala., as well as to the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, where Williams’ “Death Car” is on display.