Sheet music cover
|Single by Hank Williams|
|B-side||"Your Cheatin' Heart"|
|Recorded||September 23, 1952|
|Studio||Castle Studio, Nashville|
|Genre||Country, blues, folk|
|Songwriter(s)||Hank Williams, Fred Rose|
|Hank Williams singles chronology|
"Kaw-Liga" is one of just a handful of songs that Williams wrote with Fred Rose, who produced his records and published his songs through his company Acuff-Rose. Rose often "doctored" the songs Hank composed, making suggestions and revisions, with biographer Roger M. Williams noting that Rose's contribution to Hank's songs was probably craftsmanship, whereas Williams' was genius. Roy Acuff later recalled:
- "Hank would come up with the ideas, and Fred would say, 'Well, write it down and let me look at it.' Hank'd bring it to Fred, and Fred would sit at the piano and compliment Hank and say, "Maybe you can express this a little differently, let's change it a little bit,' but Fred never changed Hank's thinking."
Kowaliga is a community in central Alabama on Lake Martin. Named after a legendary Native American for which a wooden statue was later placed near the lake, the song was written by Hank when he was staying at a lakeside cabin that he owned and still stands today.
The song tells the story of a wooden Indian, Kaw-Liga, who falls in love with an "Indian maid over in the antique store" but does not tell her so, being, as the lyrics say:
- Too stubborn to ever show a sign,
- Because his heart was made of knotty pine.
The Indian maid waits for Kaw-Liga to signal his affection for her, but he either refuses or is physically/emotionally unable (interpretations vary) to talk. Some interpret Kaw-Liga as a stoical Native American stereotype but the subject of masculine pride and emotional hardness is a popular one in country music and the then common "dime-store Indians" (which were the store's way of advertising that they sold tobacco) being made of unmoving wood was a perfect symbol of the general aversion to expression of emotion common to all men.  Because of his stubbornness, Kaw-Liga's love continues to be unrequited, with Hank Williams, the narrator/singer of the song lamenting,
- Poor ol Kaw-liga, he never got a kiss,
- Poor ol Kaw-liga, he don't know what he missed,
- Is it any wonder that his face is red?
- Kaw-liga, that poor ol' wooden head.
The song ends with the Indian maid being bought and taken away from the antique store by a buyer, leaving Kaw-Liga alone, and he
- ...stands thar
- As lonely as can be,
- And wishes he was still an ol' pine tree.
Recording and release
The song was recorded as part of William's final recording session on September 23, 1952 at Castle Studio in Nashville. The remarkably productive session also produced "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You," (written for his soon-to-be wife Billie Jean), "Take These Chains From My Heart" (also written by Rose), and Hank's masterpiece ballad "Your Cheatin' Heart." More than any other song, "Kaw-Liga" bears evidence of the guiding hand of Rose, who moulded the song into nothing like Williams had recorded up to that point. It begins in a minor key, which modulates into a major key on the chorus, and also features big band drummer Farris Coursey, who had played brushes on Williams' previous song "Moanin' the Blues" and played in WSM's dance band. In addition, the song fades out, the only Hank Williams song to do so. Williams is also backed by Tommy Jackson (fiddle), Don Helms (steel guitar), Chet Atkins (lead guitar), Jack Shook (rhythm guitar), and Floyd "Lightnin'" Chance (bass). The single was released posthumously in January 1953 on the MGM Records label and it remained No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart for 14 weeks. The flipside, "Your Cheatin' Heart, remained #1 on the country chart for 6 weeks.
A demo version of Williams singing "Kaw-Liga" with just his guitar, likely recorded in 1951, is also available. On the recording, Williams flubs a chord and can be heard muttering "shit" before starting the song again.
In 1996, “Kaw-Liga” was referenced by Tracy Lawrence’s single “Time Marches On”, featuring the lyrics “Hank Williams sings ‘Kaw-Liga’ and ‘Dear John’ and time marches on.” “Time Marches On” held the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks.
- Champ Butler was the first to record the song, predating Williams' release.
- Marty Robbins included it as the opening track of his self-titled 1958 LP.
- Johnny and the Hurricanes released an instrumental version of the song in 1963.
- The hillbilly comedy duo Homer and Jethro included a parody entitled "Poor Ol’ Koo-liger" on their 1963 album The Humorous Side of Country Music. This album also included a parody of "Your Cheatin’ Heart", which they transformed into "Your Clobbered Heart".
- Del Shannon recorded it for his 1964 album Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams.
- Charley Pride took a live version of the song to #3 on the country singles chart in 1969.
- Loretta Lynn recorded it in 1969.
- Roy Orbison recorded it for his tribute album Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way in 1970.
- Doc Watson recorded a version for his 1974 album Two Days in November.
- Hank Williams's son, Hank Williams Jr., recorded a cover which peaked at number twelve on the Billboard country singles chart in the summer of 1980. Hank, Jr. also performed it on a television special with Johnny Cash.
- The avant-garde band The Residents recorded the song for their 1986 album Stars & Hank Forever: The American Composers Series, replacing its original backing music with the bassline of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. This was more than likely a reference to Williams' wife, who was named Billie Jean.
- Musical comedians Williams and Ree occasionally use the song to close their shows. While their cover is a largely faithful one, it is known for including a segment before the final chorus in which Bruce Williams goes off on a tangent and winds up performing a completely different song before Terry Ree finally resumes the original song.
- John Soderling recorded it for his 2018 album Old Hank's Country Songs.
- Roy Clark and Joe Pass recorded a two-guitar instrumental version for their album ‘’Roy Clark and Joe Pass Play Hank Williams’’.
- Escott, Colin & 2004 124.
- "Journal of American Indian Education-Arizona State University". asu.edu. Archived from the original on 2006-11-01.
- Escott, Colin & 2004 324.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 388.
- Jim Dawson, & Steve Propes (1992). What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record. Boston & London: Faber & Faber. pp. 111–114. ISBN 978-0-571-12939-3.
- Escott, Colin & 2004 328.