After he was discharged, Hawkins became a regular on WWVA Jamboree from 1945 to 1954 in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1946, he signed a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio. This nearly never happened, as Syd Nathan nearly threw his poorly-made demonstration record away without listening to it. However, upon listening Nathan agreed to record four Hawkins sides in West Virginia. His first two recordings with King, "Pan American" and "Dog House Boogie", were top ten country hits. A minor hit, and the song that become his signature tune, was "The Sunny Side of the Mountain." "Slow Poke", recorded in 1951, was another notable King recording. He stayed with the label until 1953.
Because of his height of six feet, five inches and his outgoing personality, he was christened "Eleven Yards of Personality".
In 1951, Hawkins and his wife adopted 4-year old Susan Marlene. They divorced in 1958 and Susan traveled back and forth between her parents in summers and for holidays.
Beginning in 1954, Hawkins was a regular performer on ABC Radio and TV's Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri, where he met his second wife, Jean Shepard . After a few years with Columbia and RCA Records, he joined the Grand Ole Opry and returned to King; and in 1962 he recorded his biggest hit, "Lonesome 7-7203". It first appeared on the Billboard country chart as a March 2, 1963 release, three days before Hawkins died. The song was absent from the charts for the two weeks following his death, but re-appeared on March 23 and spent 25 weeks on the chart, four of them at No. 1, an accomplishment that eluded him in life.
Main article: 1963 Camden PA-24 crash
On March 3, 1963, Hawkins, Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas performed at a benefit concert at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas for the family of disc jockey "Cactus" Jack Call, who had died in January after an automobile accident. Among the performers was Billy Walker, who received an urgent phone call and needed to return to Nashville immediately. Hawkins gave Walker his commercial airline ticket and instead flew back in a private plane in Walker's place.
On March 5, Hawkins, Cline and Copas left for Nashville in a Piper Comanche piloted by Cline's manager (and Copas' son-in-law), Randy Hughes. After stopping to refuel in Dyersburg, Tennessee, the craft took off at 6:07 p.m. CT. The plane flew into severe weather and crashed at 6:29 p.m. in a forest near Camden, Tennessee, 90 miles from Nashville. There were no survivors. Fans around the world mourned the loss; Hawkshaw was survived by his daughter, Susan Marlene, his young son Donnie, and his wife Jean Shepard was pregnant at the time with their second son, Harold Franklin Hawkins II. Hawk Jr was born just one month after his father's death.
Hawkins was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Goodlettsville, Tennessee in "Music Row" with Copas and other country music stars.