Hank Williams’ music, mystery, legacy live on
Sixty years ago, right about now, 29-year-old Hank Williams was getting ready to go.
Like, really, to go.
He thought he was heading from Montgomery, Ala., to Canton, Ohio, to play a New Year’s Day show.
But he was heading to Birmingham, after taking a shot of morphine. Doctor’s orders. Or rather, Hank’s orders, to the doctor. His back hurt, all the time.
Beyond Birmingham, where he slept on Dec. 30, Hank was heading to Knoxville, to Corryton and Blaine and Bristol in Tennessee, to Bluefield up in West Virginia. And then on to Princeton and Mt. Hope, W.Va., and then to the great beyond. Maybe not so great, who knows? Anyway, the beyond.
Which is why 10 years ago I wrote a story about the death of Hank Williams, on the 50th anniversary of all that dreariness. (Read that story here.)
I traveled the same route — or as close as I could get to it, given changes in the roads — that Hank took when he was driven to his death by an innocent Auburn freshman named Charles Carr. I took notes of the things I saw along the road, and in the end felt I better understood Carr and Williams’ journey.
Nothing that happened along the way was Carr’s fault. Hank was likely drinking Falstaff beer along the route, mixing the alcohol with morphine and chloral hydrate, and an intervention might have been in order. But if interventions from the “Grand Ole Opry” brass and from Williams’ publisher, Fred Rose, hadn’t worked, then the teenage son of Hank’s Montgomery drinking buddy wasn’t going to be able to lay down the law.
So Hank Williams died, in the backseat of a nice car, 60 years ago, as the old year became what was then the new year. Williams’ eyes never saw the dawn of 1953. He wasn’t alive as Carr entered the city limits of Oak Hill, W.Va., the town listed on Hank’s death certificate.
The test of time
There are things in the story that I’d change if I were in a changing kind of mood. For one, I doubt I’d feel comfortable calling Williams “country music’s single greatest performer” in front of Merle Haggard, though I also doubt Haggard would correct me.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve tried to stop using terms such as “greatest” anyway, because “greatest” makes the false assumption that music is some kind of competition. Hank Williams doesn’t have to be greater than Haggard, Johnny Cash or anyone else in order to be indelible.
Also, over the past 10 years, I’ve been pleased to hear more Hank Williams music than I knew existed when I wrote that story. As it turns out, my “Complete Hank Williams” boxed set wasn’t the complete Hank Williams, after all. The Williams family and Time-Life put together 15 CDs of radio recordings that are as fascinating and enjoyable as Williams’ studio recordings.
The past decade also has brought a shift in the way people hear and purchase music, and portions of that shift have been at least distressing and at most devastating to music-makers.
And the decade, of course, has brought the deaths of Cash, Kitty Wells, Earl Scruggs and other legends, and of many people who were around Hank Williams, who would have been 89 years old this past September.
His Drifting Cowboys band members are gone now. If you’re looking around Nashville for people to talk about personal experiences with Williams, you’d do well either to find Little Jimmy Dickens or to hope Ray Price is in town.
It’s the music, though, that sings and kicks and gleams as much as ever. Williams’ songs have lost nothing in the way of power or luster, even though he’s been dead now twice as long as he was alive. The songs that young man sang are still doe-eyed and fresh-faced. They were good enough to outrun their author, and they’re still circling the track.
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HANK WILLIAMS, SR. TIMELINE:
Sept. 17, 1923 — Hank Williams is born in Mount Olive, Ala.
1938 — Hank forms the first of his Drifting Cowboys bands
December 1944 — Hank and Audrey Mae Sheppard get married
1946 — Hank and Audrey visit Nashville to meet publisher Fred Rose
1947 — Hank signs with MGM
Fall 1947 — Hank’s first release, “Move It On Over,” is a hit
August 1948 — Hank moves to Shreveport, La., to work on radio show “The Louisiana Hayride”
1949 — Hank’s “Honky Tonkin’” makes the charts
May 1949 — Hank’s “Lovesick Blues” reaches No. 1 and stays for 16 weeks
June 1949 — Hank moves to Nashville; is hired by the “Grand Ole Opry”
Spring 1950 — “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” is successful
1951 — Hank’s drinking problem, marital issues and spinal pain begin to worsen
December 1951 — Hank undergoes operation for his spine
1952 — Audrey and Hank split; “Grand Ole Opry” fires Hank, who moves back to Alabama
September 1952 — Hank moves back to Shreveport to again work on “The Louisiana Hayride”
October 1952 — Hank marries Billie Jean Jones Eshliman
December 1952 — “Jambalaya” reaches No. 1
Dec. 30, 1952 — Hank leaves for bookings in West Virginia and Ohio
Jan. 1, 1953 — Hank is pronounced dead in Oak Hill, W. Va.
SOURCES: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; Tennessean archives