The Man Who Taught Hank Williams How To Play Guitar: The Story of Rufus Payne
It goes without saying that Hank Williams is a country music legend, but it would be entirely within reason to argue that he was also the single most influential artist in the history of the genre. But could it be that an African-American street musician was the genius behind The Drifting Cowboy?
There were no recordings made by Rufus Payne. However, Payne made his important mark on country music history by mentoring and teaching a young boy from the deep south how to play the guitar, and perhaps especially by teaching that boy to appreciate the hillbilly and blues musical influences from the surrounding regions.
Payne’s nickname was “Tee-Tot” and everyone who knew him called him this in lieu of his namesake. The tag is a pun on “teetotaler.” A homemade mixture of alcohol and tea that the musician carried with him nearly everywhere he went helped cement the nickname.
Tee-Tot exposed Williams to blues and other African American influences that eventually helped Williams successfully combine hillbilly, folk and blues into his own unique style–a style that would eventually change the landscape of country music forever. Remarkably, the Williams music legacy deserves much of the credit from a man who was never known past his local community in southern Alabama during his lifetime. It was only after his death, and the subsequent death of Williams, that this unique story has really been told in any real meaningful way.
Amazingly, many of the details of Payne’s life are still a mystery–probably best illustrated by the fact that his death certificate left off his date of birth, mother’s name, father’s name. This wasn’t for any other reason but that they were not known.
What details are available have been gathered together by Alabama historian Alice Harp: Payne was born around the year of 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Sandy Ridge (Lowndes County), Alabama. According to Harp, Payne’s parents had been slaves there and after being freed, moved to New Orleans around 1890. There, Payne would immerse himself in the brand new Jazz movement. Following the death of his parents, he would move to, and settle in, Greenville, Alabama.
Williams’ cousins J.C. and Walter McNeil, Jr. remembered Payne in Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott.
J.C. McNeil recalled that Payne lived down by the tracks in Greenville and worked part-time at Peagler’s Drug Store as a cleaner and delivery person. Both men remember that he had a hunched back with long arms that extended almost to his knees.
“He would play the guitar and the cymbals,” said Walter McNeil. “He had the cymbals tied between his legs, and he had this thing around his neck with the jazz horn, I think he called it, and the Jew’s harp. And he could play all those things with the guitar and called himself a one-man band. He had a cigar box in front of him where you’d throw the money.” Tee-Tot also took other part-time jobs to make ends meet. Hank Sr. told one of his band members that Tee-Tot worked for a time as a janitor at the school in Greenville.
Lilly (Hank’s mother) recounted to Escott that she paid Payne in meals in exchange for Hank’s lessons.
“More than anything,” said Walter McNeil, “I think Tee-Tot helped Hank get beyond his shyness, and helped him project himself a little, little more, ’cause Hank was a shy person really. He had to lose that somehow, and I think Tee-Tot was a big help to him in doing that.”
While much of what passed between student and mentor disappeared with the death of Williams, it’s thought that his rhythm and forceful guitar playing was drawn out of those early lessons. Williams’ use of a strong E chord is reminiscent of some of the blues tunes that Payne would have been playing at the time.
Payne most certainly taught Hank some songs. And while few (if any) of those songs ever made it to a Williams recording session, certainly the rhythm, sound, swing and blues still paid tribute to Payne’s influence.
Before his death, Williams announced–in a nearly unfathomable social and racial revelation–that a black musician was his biggest influence growing up. “All the music training I ever had was from him,” he told the Montgomery Advertiser at the time of his 1951 Homecoming. The next year in a different publication, he’d announce, “I learned to play the guitar from an old colored man. [...] I’d give him 15 cents, or whatever I could get a hold of, for the lesson.”
Williams’ son, Hank Jr., paid tribute to Tee-Tot being such an incredible influence on his father through “The Tee Tot Song” on his Almeria Club album. You can listen to the song below:
Rufus Payne died nearly penniless at a charity hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1939. His age upon his death was unknown but it was thought at the time that he was around 55.
Editor’s Note: This article quotes brief passages (as cited) from author and country music historian Colin Escott’s fascinating 1995 book: Hank Williams: The Biography. The book is considered the landmark work on Williams’ life. Click here to view a list of books written by Escott.
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