It’s that time of year again, when self-deluded pretenders swear off deadly vices, and morbid rubberneckers tally up the annual rock n’ roll body count. 2010 saw the passing of Ari Up of The Slits, garage rocker Jay Reatard, Ronnie James Dio (who brought the devil-horns hand gesture to heavy metal,) Malcolm McLaren (the media manipulator responsible for the Sex Pistols’ public personas,) and R&B’s paraplegic panty-drencher, Teddy Pendergrass.
Today also marks the 48th anniversary of Hank Williams’ tragic death. Found cold and blue in his ’52 Cadillac at the age of 29, sodden with morphine, chloral hydrate, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, he became the seminal celebrity martyr.
Dubbed the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams blazed like a backwoods bonfire, enthralling honky-tonk hayseeds from coast to coast. He recorded 66 songs in 6 years, not counting the posthumous releases or spoken-word tracks as his alter-ego, Luke the Drifter. Hank infused the typical country themes of tragic love, unbearable solitude, copious carousing, and looming death with an ominous sincerity—the voice of a tortured lunatic hellbent on living out the songs that he wrote. When he sang “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” he fucking meant it.
Born to a physically broken father and a tough, overbearing mother in the sticks of Alabama, he was only six when his father was committed to a V.A. sanitorium. His mother, Lillie, ran a flophouse, where Hank grew up in the company of various roughnecks and ne’er-do-wells. The boy was a frail loner from the get-go. Due to damning genetics, rural malnutrition, or just plain ol’ hard luck, Hank showed symptoms of spina bifida occulta early on. His malformed vertebrae slowly pried apart under the weight of his body, allowing the spinal chord to protrude from the protective column. The physical agony of this birth defect would intensify over the course of his short life like a biological reminder of original sin. God clothed Adam and Eve in garments of skin, and the stitches were busting apart by the time they were handed down to Hank.
Lillie encouraged Hank to sing the Lord’s praises as a child, which surfaced in the gospel themes of his early recordings. His favorite childhood hymn was, appropriately, “Death is Only a Dream.” But Hank would also be inspired by more worldly influences. His adolescent fantasies were painted by early Western films, and townsfolk recalled the boy moseying about town in a cowboy hat with two pea-shooters strapped to his waist. As with many budding rednecks before and after, Hank took his first swig of hooch at age eleven. Most importantly, young Hank received guitar lessons from a local black street musician, the humpbacked Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. As with Brian Jones, Duane Allman, and Stevie Ray Vaughn after him, the incisive soul of black blues reverberated in Hank Williams’ falsetto twang and crack rhythms.
In 1937 Lillie moved her children to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, when Hank was thirteen. Under the heavy-handed management of his mother, Hank landed gigs with local radio stations, toured small hillbilly venues with his new band, The Cowboy Drifters, and guzzled booze as if it were good for him. While traveling with a medicine show in the summer of ’43, Hank encountered the sharp-tongued, aristocratic muse whose cold, cold heart would light him on fire.
Rural medicine shows were the post-Depression equivalent of today’s Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival. After performing, the musicians would meander through the crowd selling snake oil and herbs. As he peddled elixirs among the folk, Hank laid eyes on a lovely blonde belle and suddenly lightning struck. A few days later—shirtless and drunk—he proposed on their second date. Audrey Mae must have seen something special in his mischievous smirk and dark eyes, because they were married the next year after her divorce was finalized. Two years later, in 1946, the couple hopped off the train in Nashville, where Hank would record the bulk of his chart-topping material under the guidance of his mentor and confidant, Fred Rose.
Post-WWII Nashville was not the cornpone tourist trap one finds today. It had no mega-churches, no strip clubs, no amusement parks, and very few recording studios. In those days, high society Nashvillians proudly proclaimed their city as the Athens of the South, a thriving center of higher learning and aristocratic refinement. As such, they regarded the incoming hordes of git-tar wielding dreamers as whiskey-bent white trash. Still, the city boasted the most widely syndicated—and advertisement saturated—hillbilly radio show in the nation, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Not long after his premiere on the coveted Prince Albert Tobacco segment in mid-1949, Hank Williams became the star of the show.
The importance of Fred Rose’s role in Hank’s meteoric rise to stardom cannot be stressed enough. From the early Sterling Records cuts like “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” to the seemingly endless string of MGM hits (37 in all,) Fred Rose was right there in the studio with Hank, sifting gold from the sandy depths of the country boy’s sorrow. Hank’s lyrics are a string of timeless gems, ranging from cynical humor to calloused despair, and rendered in Zen-like simplicity through clever rhymes. “People don’t write music,” he once claimed. “It’s given to you.”
Fred was also an industry insider who knew the right buttons to push. Always loyal to Hank, Rose was shrewd but never greedy. The same could not be said of Hank—at least in the beginning—and certainly not of Audrey. After years of nickel-and-diming it in Montgomery and Shreveport, LA, Hank and Audrey were ready for a break. Little Hank Jr. was on the way in early 1949 when “Lovesick Blues” made it to number one. That’s when the cash started pouring in, and soon they moved back to Nashville. Hank bought a house on Franklin Road—on what’s now known as Music Row—which Audrey set about renovating.
The flood of money provided for fur coats, crystal china, plush furniture, and fancy guitars—much of which was smashed to pieces in true rock n’ roll fashion. Hank and Audrey were known to beat the living damn-it out of each other on a regular basis, particularly when Hank was on one of his sloppy benders. Upon learning that Audrey had aborted another man’s child, he was inspired to write one of his greatest hits, “Cold, Cold Heart.” Though he grew weary of the constant touring, it must have provided some relief from a house without love. Certainly, he was never known to say no to a groupie—no matter what her age might be.
In 1950, Hank headlined the Hadacol Caravan, “the last and greatest medicine show.” Promoted by the always shady Senator Dudley LeBlanc of Louisiana, and featuring comedians, clowns, and West Coast show girls, the tour was a sort of product initiation ritual for Hadacol—LeBlanc’s 24-proof vitamin tonic, assured to induce instant whiskey shits. Though LeBlanc’s checks bounced repeatedly, the nationwide exposure blasted the “King of the Hillbillies” into the national mainstream. Soon Hank was signing Hollywood movie contracts and performing on the new electric church: network television. The irons were hot and Hank was banging away, but the suffocating culture of seedy opportunists and fat cat executives was crushing the life out of him. He had been transformed into a cartoonish commodity, when all he wanted to do was hunt squirrels and fish by a quiet river.
By 1951 Hank was pulling in over $100,000 a year, an inconceivable fortune in those days. His personal life, however, descended into a sorry shitstorm of pills, booze, screaming back pain, and unraveling relationships. He couldn’t buy enough toys to keep his son close to him. Audrey filed for divorce in January of 1952, citing Hank’s “continued misconduct,” and demanded a king’s ransom in settlements. Hank just continued falling apart. He continued to tour, but often showed up too drunk to play. Frequent stints in rehab were of no avail. The Opry canned him after repeated no-shows—though Hank insisted that he quit—and the Cowboy Drifters began moving on one by one. And yet, during this downward spiral ol’ Hank continued to record hit songs, such as “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and even took one last stab at true love.
On October 19, 1952, the stunning Billie Jean Jones became Mrs. Hank Williams at the tender age of twenty, before a crowd of 14,000 people in New Orleans. Their wedding photo was to be Hank’s last. He wore a white hat and the purple bruises of a recent ass-whipping, and it was a matter of minutes before the bloom had blown off of the rose. Not yet thirty, Hank was reduced to a slobbering shell of his former glory—his appearance regularly fluctuated between withered and puffy, his scalp resembled a shiny coconut, he frequently puked and pissed on himself, and his cock stayed as limp as a leather tassel. He began to suffer wrenching chest pains, shortness of breath, and of course, his twisted back was wracked with excruciating spasms. His spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. He told Billie Jean, “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.” So it is understandable that he would turn to “Dr.” Toby Marshall for relief. This ex-con huckster, who’d bought his diploma in a gas station parking lot, provided unconditional understanding, prescriptions for morphine injections, and an unlimited supply of the potent barbiturate, chloral hydrate. Finally, a friend that Hank could rely on.
In the winter of ’52, Hank was booked for a New Year’s gig in Canton, OH—an uncommon occurrence at this point, given his notorious unreliability. He departed his mother’s boardinghouse in late December, left a note and a box of chocolates on his father’s doorstep, said goodbye to Billie Jean, and stepped into his powder blue Cadillac for one last road trip. His driver, Charles Carr, claims that Hank was in good spirits most of the way. He sang songs, beat a rhythm on the dashboard, and washed down chloral hydrates with cans of PBR. There are conflicting accounts from there—here’s one of them.
Snow fell in heavy blankets as the Caddy passed through Knoxville on New Year’s Eve. The pair wound up taking a room in the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Hank began hiccupping uncontrollably, so Carr phoned for a doctor. Dr. P.H. Cardwell arrived promptly, and booted Hank up with two shots of morphine mixed with vitamin B12—sure to knock out a hard case of the hiccups. Two porters carried Hank’s limp body to the car later that night. Carr gunned it for Canton, but when he stopped for gas in West Virginia, he found Hank stiff as a board. Autopsy reports revealed that Hank had bruises and contusions all over his body, but the final verdict was that he “died of severe heart condition and hemorrhage” on January 1, 1953.
From there, the preliminary blueprint for the dead rock star motif was drawn up and splashed across the newspapers. The vultures descended without hesitation. Hank’s funeral in Montgomery attracted close to 20,000 people—the largest U.S. crowd since the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. His white-clad body was buried with a white Bible beneath tons of concrete and hysterical tears, and his countless sins were publicly forgiven.
Immediately, his records began flying off the shelves, and every object he had touched became a holy hillbilly relic. From backwoods honky-tonks to trendy dive bars, “The Angel of Death” is now the official soundtrack for suicidal alcoholics and future opioid casualties, and shamelessly depraved writers [the author shifts in his seat nervously] rehash this sordid tale year after year. At 29, Hank Williams was canonized as a martyr in the church of excess, and so long as the Digital Machine keeps chugging along, his songs will echo for all eternity.
For further reading, see Colin Escott’s Hank Williams: The Biography.
© 2011 Joseph Allen