Hank Williams legacy lives on

Hank Williams’ music, mystery, legacy live on

Click to see a gallery of Hank Williams over the years.Click to see a gallery of Hank Williams over the years.

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

Today, at Tennessean.com/Musicyou can find my story from 10 years ago, about Williams’ death 60 years ago.

Hank Williams 2

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 WellsEarl 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.

Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com


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

Hank Williams (photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)Hank Williams (photo courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)

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

About Dick and Danna

OUR BUCKET LIST: 1950 First kid in the area with a portable radio on my bike when I was in grade school........... 1951 Built a 5 watt radio transmitter when I was in high school and went on the radio from home. Not the most legal thing to do. Built a PA system from scratch also........... 1951-1954 Learned to play Steel Guitar. Played many shows of country music on 6 different radio stations with different groups in Western Pennsylvania........... 1954 Married Danna Lewis at when she was 15 years old........... 1960 Got into Citizen Band Radio. Danna and I were two of the original founders of CB Rangers CB club in Butler. We published a call book of all of the CBers in the Tri-State area............ 1969 Danna and I were two of the original founders of the Tri-State Country Music Association. I wrote a column for their newspaper every month........... 1960 We went to Nashville. Met Ralph Emery of WSM radio and Archie Campbell, a Hee Haw TV Entertainer. Had coffee with them at Linbaugh’s Restaurant in Nashville. Archie bought the coffee........... 1965 We developed a successful network marketing business. In later years developed a few others. Greatest training on attitudes and success........... 1968 Had a Built an outdoor stage. Had a country music jam session on our lawn at home with around 500 musicians and their family from 5 different states........... 1969 Played music on the staff band of the WWVA Jamboree and backed up all of the entertainers in front of thousands of people for 4 months. WWVA was second largest country music show at that time next to WSM Grand Old Opry........... 1984 Danna started her own typesetting business in her home. Danna Vernon Graphics had customers in 3 counties. Very successful. She taught herself how to run the typesetter machine. It was a photo typesetter. She also did layout work for printers........... 1988 I taught the secretaries at Butler hospital how to use word processing and computers, but I never had any schooling or education on it. I also did some computer programming. Before this I ran the printing operation at the hospital........... 1989 I quit a good computer job and Danna and I bought a printing franchise, Minuteman Press in Butler PA. Operated it for 5 years............ 1994 We bought a motor home. went to Florida. Spent 9 years going to Florida for 6 months every year and back to Pennsylvania for 6 months............ 1995 We played music with “Spur of the Moment” band in Florida........... 2001 Never knew my dad. Met him in 2001 and Danna and I spent a wonderful 5 years together before he passed away. Went on a wonderful 2 weeks tour of Europe (5 countries) with him. He lived in Bradenton Florida........... 2002 Danna started singing and ended up running the Suncoast Jamboree in Florida, She had her own band and scheduled everything. She sang and emcee’d the show. Played many of the RV parks in the area........... 2004 Started a recording studio in Pa and FL. Danna recorded numerous CD’s........... 2007 Since I was a little kid, I have always wanted to wear the spots off a deck of cards. I finally accomplished it this year. Threw the deck away........... 2010 We started and played in various Gospel Music Groups. Country Transition, Good News Country Gospel. Played churches all over Western Pennsylvania........... 2010 We played music on television shows on WHCU-TV Kittanning........... 2010-2014 Danna and I did a 30 minute interview talk show, Danna’s Radio Diner, on WTYM & WAVL radio. Over 30,000 hits from over 100 countries on our website as of June 2017. Still get many hits every day........... 2010 Danna and I were on TV participating in Family Life TV WHKU helping their Christmas Auction on television........... 2011 Danna and I both read our first commercial to be broadcast on WTYM radio. Also I wrote a radio promo and a short radio script........... 2012 Operated a TV camera on a live TV show on WKHU-TV........... 2013 Produced an hour TV show – Armstrong Trails on WKHU-TV Kittanning, PA. Produced a monthly live country music dinner show with various bands at WTYM radio........... 2014 We went on a country music cruise and interviewed 12 top county music TV stars for our radio show........... 2014 Rode for an hour in the cab beside the engineer of a locomotive on Kiski Jct. railroad. Broadcast it on one of our radio shows........... 2014 Played Steel for Nashvile recording star Teea Goans when they came to Kittanning on WKHU-TH and WTYM Radio. Also in 2013 backed up Joann Cash (Johnny Cash sister)........... 2015 Started Danna’s Internet Café, an internet radio show. Also shows were run on WXED-FM 107.3 and WFSN-FM 96.7. for a year and a half........... 2016 I bought a Uke Bass and learned to play it. Played a jam session a week later. Sounds like a big upright bass.
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