The Long, Lonesome Highway of Hank Williams
The roses have faded, there's frost at my door
The birds in the morning don't sing anymore
The grass in the valley is starting to die
And out in the darkness the whippoorwills cry.
-- Hank Williams, from “Alone & Forsaken”
The South in the deep, lonely nights of winter can be unforgiving, without regard for fame or legend. On New Years Eve 1952, the ice and wind covered the land on the lonely highways of Alabama, Tennessee, and West Virginia. This became a haunting backdrop for one of popular music’s greatest tragedies.
On that same December 31, country singing star Hank Williams, was deep in the winter of his brief life. On his way to a show in Canton, Ohio, he was traveling a highway of no return. It would only be matter of hours before he would cross death’s lonely threshold, into the stuff of legend. As misguided and off-track as his life seemed during his last few hours on Earth, soon after his passing, Williams was hailed as a kind of country-western saint. That truth has remained for several decades, as his legend has grown and the realities of his life have become more obscure.
It’s remarkable to consider how much esteem, respect, and awe has been given to Hank Williams over the last 61 years. He is revered like few other musical icons of the 20th Century. Today, as genre boundaries have blurred, narrowed, and redefined themselves, Williams's song references and tributes continue to find their way onto the music scene. Country star Jason Aldean sang this on the title song of his multiplatinum selling album My Kind of Party:
You can find me in the back of a jacked up tailgate
Chillin' with some Skynard and some old Hank
The tragic side of this lyric lies in the fact that Hank didn’t live long enough to truly be considered "old Hank."
With all of the reverence, it’s easy to forget Hank Williams was a real, flesh-and-blood human being who carried with him the vulnerabilities universal to us all. He also had a drive in him, like many young artists today, to create and succeed. When he died, the jury was still out on a comeback trail that found him haunting small, obsucre venues. But he always stayed close to the song. It's where he began.
Although what he created was clothed in the traditions of early country music, the heart of his work, especially through his voice and unique songwriting style, was closer to a street-blues singer traveling throughout the South in the early part of the 20th century. When viewed in this light, what he accomplished in such a short span of history is all the more remarkable.
Born Hiram King Williams in 1923, in Mt. Olive, Alabama, he was keenly aware of the music of his times. He absorbed it all from popular radio songs, gospel, and street blues. But, he carried certain burdens along with him. The two indisputable facts of Hank Williams’s life was his love for music and alcohol. Both may have been due to the fact that he was born with a back condition called spina bifida occulta -- a disorder of the spinal column. Biographers agree, the resulting pain caused him to move toward music as a career since he was physically unable to labor in the Alabama lumber industry, where jobs were plentiful for young men during the '30s. But, with the chronic pain from his back, it was his addiction to alcohol, and eventually tranquilizers and pain killers, that would shape his final destiny. He began drinking at age 11 and took his last drink a short 18 years later.
Williams first hit the charts with “Move It on Over” in 1947. He was 24 years old. He charted 34 songs on the Top 40 national country charts, with two songs (“Lovesick Blues” and “Jambalaya”) crossing over to the pop charts. In 1951, Williams's “Cold, Cold Heart,” recorded by Tony Bennett, became among the first country songs to go number one on the national pop charts. The last of Williams's songs to chart in his life time was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Hank championed a public persona of a good old boy. However, most of those who knew him would have described him as a loner, painfully shy during his childhood. Thanks to early training as a performer, he learned to wear his country-boy mask well. It kept most people at a distance from the pain that was buried deep inside of him. Remember, the same artist who wrote the light hearted “Long Gone Daddy” also managed to call up the poetic solitude and isolation of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
While several biographies have been published over the years, it’s Colin Escott’s Hank Williams: A Biography that best captures the scope and essence of Williams’s life. Escott traces the music that influenced him along the way. It’s revealing and may surprise those who have yet to take a full drink of Williams's legacy. It was about the sacred and the secular and the tension between the two.
From the beginning, Hank Williams was authentically Christian in the most fundamental sense. His mother was a devout Baptist, even playing piano in church. She kept Hank by her side. At night, he slept with a bible in bed with him. He fervently believed the religious songs he wrote. “I Saw the Light,” and “Mansion on a Hill,” were statements of his idealized faith. But, the deeper longing in his songs, the tear in his voice, was echoed from the times he sat outside of the black churches where the music would seep into his soul in a way that informed and formed him. This experience became a major influence on his legacy. However, it was forthrightly portrayed in his Luke the Drifter collection of spoken word songs, where he cloaked himself in the persona of a gospel-fevered, moral storyteller. But, Hank’s Luke was not a hell-fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher; he was a prophet of mercy who asked the listener to look inside of themselves rather than outward in judgment of others.
If Luke the Drifter was a pious would-be saint, at battle in the heart of Hank Williams was the sinner, the wayward soul, the painfully lost child and creative genius. From this struggle, another important musical influence was born. The music that resulted was as much from the streets of his hometown in Alabama as it was from the churches along the Bible Belt.
As legend and history tells it, he was taught by a street blues singer named Rufus Payne. Payne's nickname was Tee Tot, an affectionate title for the musician who always carried a brew of tea and alcohol with him as he played. He taught young Hank Williams how to play blues on guitar, how to sing, and perhaps most importantly, how to get past his boyhood shyness in order to perform for an audience.
For a young white musician in 1930’s Alabama, well-versed in Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry, the sound of natural country blues that drove Williams's music would cause him to stand out from the crowd. It eventually turned the world of traditional country music upside down. When Hank first hit the charts in the late-'40s, songs like “Move It on Over,” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole in It,” and “Honky Tonkin” represented a kind of country music few had heard. In Memphis, less than a decade later, the same sound was labeled rockabilly. But, Hank Williams was there first.
In 1949, with the breakout blockbuster national hit, his cover of the 1922 show tune, “Lovesick Blues,” the pressure mounted physically, spiritually, and emotionally on him. There was little to prepare him for the last years of his life; the successes and the failures. The only outlet available to him was his music. So, it was there he took his troubles. And, through the music preserved today, we hear that lonely place deep within him, where he carried on as his life began to disintegrate.
When Hank died, bad weather had descended on the Deep South. He must have thought the coming year, 1953, had to be better than the one that was passing. Ironically, in some ways his year was his best ever. His records were national hits. His creative energy was a white hot flame against the Alabama winter skies during December of 1952. But, down in the core of his being, something was wrong. He couldn’t find a center of contentment to match the inspired spark that carried his best-loved songs. His back pain was constant. His alcohol abuse was demoralizing. He sought out help from churches, even asking for prayer from nuns. In the days leading up to his passing he told friends, “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.”
If, in some ways, Hank looked like an artist on the top of the world, up close the tear and the tare in his good old boy veneer was showing through. Years of struggle had taken its toll, making him appear to be a much older man than his 29 years of life. He had been recently fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Unreliability and drunkenness was cited as the cause. He gained a reputation on the road for not showing up for shows or turning up too late and drunk to please a crowd. He was divorced from Audrey, the mother of Hank Jr, in August of that year. By October, he had married a 19-year-old beauty, Billie Jean Jones. And, sometime in between divorce and marriage, he found time to have an affair which would result in the birth of a daughter, Jett Williams, within days after his death. He had just filed critically important court papers verifying that he was the unborn child's father. His legendary band, The Drifting Cowboys, had begun backing the up and coming country singer Ray Price. His publisher, Fred Rose, refused to work with him. The only live shows he could manage were with local bands in small beer joints and roadside honky-tonks. It had been a year of uncertainty in what should have been a time of celebration and success. Once again, like so many times before, Hank Williams was alone at his own personal crossroad.
With a sense of heavy dreariness, he went out on the road again. He hired a 17 year-old family friend, Charles Carr, to drive his limo to a scheduled New Year’s Eve show in Charleston, West Virginia, after weather prevented air travel. Eventually, icy roads caused the cancelation of that show. As the road trip began, Hank was drinking and had a shot of morphine administered to him by the infamous Dr. P.H Cardwell who he consulted for the debilitating back pain.
On his way to a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio, before stopping at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, Hank was drinking and ingesting chloral hydrate, a tranquilizer that helped induce sleep. During his final meal, Carr noticed Williams’ beginning to falter. It would take two hotel porters to carry him to the backseat of the limousine that night as he coughed and convulsed like a man barely able to hold on to his life. Sometime after midnight, January 1, 1953, between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia, Hank Williams passed from life’s vale of tears into that cold winter night’s last breath of darkness. Found in the backseat of the limo were scattered, empty beer cans and an ordinary drug-store bought spiral notebook filled with unfinished lyrics.
Such was Hank Williams reputation as a live performer that when his death was announced at his New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio, the audience broke out into laughter. But, as the band began to play “I Saw the Light” the crowd slowly understood and joined in singing.
In the aftermath of his death, Hank Williams became immortal in the eyes of the country music establishment. Classic songs like “Kaw-liga” and “Take These Chains from My Heart,” would go to number one in 1953. His memory and estate would become a point of contention for years to come. A misguided biopic with George Hamilton, Your Cheating’ Heart, was released in 1965 portraying Audrey Williams, who served as a consultant, as a devoted and faithful wife. Ironically, it was Audrey for whom Hank wrote the song, "Your Cheatin' Heart."
Today, Williams has been covered by more popular artists across genres than any country-western artist in history. His name is spoken in reverent tones wherever country music is played. He is in both the Country Music and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But, what Hank didn’t know -- what no one knew in 1953 -- was the scope and reach of his influence over the next 60 years. It is not just that his songs have been covered by so many artists from different genres; but naturally, without effort or forethought, he fused country music with the street blues and gospel music he learned as a child. Hillbilly music, gospel, and blues were not three separate forms of music to him, but one unique brand. Today we call it Americana.
If this genre blend was his foundation, then his core was that of a devoutly spiritual man who believed in the gospel message as he was taught through the Baptist churches where he spent his childhood. He carried, deep in his bones, a faith in the religion of his region. At least part of his torture must have been his inability to follow through in the way that was modeled for him in childhood. There, personal demons went to work on him. Like a cancer, the wrenching back pain from undiagnosed or -treated spina bifida and the subsequent and inevitable addiction to alcohol were evidence of the deep pain and helpless loneliness he felt in life. However, until the last year of his life, the pain didn’t stop him. Rather, it drove him on. It can be heard in his classic songs, in the timbre of his voice, in the soul that is preserved for us today.
When heard in the context of a man fighting his fate, struggling with his faith, battling disease, that voice -- sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes lighthearted, always soulful -- resonates more than most country singers today, who have so much modern polished sonic technology at their fingertips. All that Hank Williams had was the songs and that deeply felt place inside that drove him to sing.
There is no way to estimate adequately a man’s worth or to measure the extent of his legacy. But, if we could, I believe we would find that Hank Williams probably has more than treasure in heaven, more than a mansion on a hill. Today, beyond his music, his legacy, his legend and the haunting way he left us, we know he is no longer lost and adrift on the river. Today, as you read this article, Hank Williams -- free of pain, full of joy -- sings with the angels, in devotion to the precious savior he so longed to serve in this life. Today, Hank Williams is no longer alone and forsaken. He is mercifully in the light he once saw a glipmse of in song.
This article is based on one previously published in San Diego Troubadour.