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Hank Williams: The Original Outlaw

Hank Williams had been on the road for five years and it was starting to take its toll. America’s involvement in World War II had brought the first iteration of his Drifting Cowboys to a grinding halt when everyone except Hank had been drafted. This meant that he had to hire other musicians to fill the void, which shouldn’t have been a problem, but Hank Williams was caught tight in the grip of crippling alcohol addiction. His dependence on booze was so bad that many of those who agreed to work with him quickly changed their minds after spending time in his presence. When he was sober enough to perform, he was raking in a decent amount of money from each show, but he was then blowing the vast majority of it on drink as soon as he stepped off-stage. In fact, it was so bad that when he met his hero, Roy Acuff, Acuff told him;

You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.”

That fateful exchange took place in 1942. Hank Williams was 19 at the time. So what caused this infinitely talented young man to spend a vast amount of his tragically short life deep inside a bottle? And just how good was he?

Hank Williams publicity still from 1951
By WSM radio – https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/movies/a-new-map-to-hank-williamss-lost-highways.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17066758

Hank Williams was born Hiram Williams in Mount Olive, Alabama, on Sep. 17, 1923. His father, Elonzo Huble Williams, was a railroad engineer who had served during World War I. He’d received a serious head injury after falling from a moving truck, or he’d been smashed over the head with a wine bottle during a dispute over a woman, depending on who you believe. His mother, Jessie Lillybelle, would end up raising him by herself after his father was sent to a VA hospital when Hiram was just seven years old. The reason for this was that Elonzo was discovered to have a brain aneurysm which was causing facial paralysis and his absence meant that his son was destined to become the man of the house far sooner than he should have. This alone would’ve been a good enough explanation as to why Hank’s life took the dark turn that it did, but the main reason behind his future self-destruction was that he was born with spina bifida occulta, meaning that he was constantly suffering.

It is reported that by the age of 13, Hank was drinking whiskey like water to help ease the pain of his condition, but it was also around this time that he laid his hands on his first-ever guitar and set off on the path that would eventually see him elevate country music to a national and global level previously unheard of. Nobody knows who bought Hank this six-string, with everyone and their Grandma taking credit for the future Hall of Famer, but what we do know is that he was taught by Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a blues musician who was living in Georgia at the time. In fact, Williams himself would say that Tee Tot was his only teacher, and it’s quite easy to see the influence that he had on his playing style. A lot of people hear the term Country music and automatically think what they’re going to get is a bunch of rednecks blowing into jugs, strumming banjos, and singing about how great the South was before the Civil War, and while there is a section of the genre that will, unfortunately, do that, all the true pioneers had far more depth to them than sitting on the porch, sipping moonshine, and wondering which cross they should burn next. If you listen to Hank Williams, the blues are so ingrained in everything he does that there are times it’s easy to forget that he’s a country singer.

It would be this dedication to the blues that would bring him his debut success. In 1937, when he was 15 years old, he entered a local talent contest which he won with his song WPA Blues. His prize was $15, which is around $250 in today’s money, but he wouldn’t rest on his laurels and started to camp outside the WSFA Radio Studio each weekend, playing and singing to the passer’s by. It didn’t take the higher-ups long before they invited the young boy to appear on their show and he was such a hit with the listeners, who called into the station in droves demanding more of the ‘Singing Kid’, that they gave him his own show twice a week. This gave him financial independence and he set about forming the Driting Cowboys before hitting the road.

In 1939, he quit school and became a full-time musician, and over the next year, Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys went from strength to strength. In early 1940, Nashville came calling but what should’ve been the making of the man never came to fruition as he was deemed too unreliable for them to give his obvious talent a home. This was down to the fact that Hank Williams was drunk 90% of the time and the 10% of the time he wasn’t, he was trying to figure out where he could get a drink from. Then America entered the war in 1941 and Hank found himself suddenly without a band. As I explained in the intro to this piece, this was a very trying time for him. Things got so bad that he ended up having to take a job building ships for the rest of the war, but he did meet Audrey Sheppard in 1943, and she would become the first of his two wives.

 

Hank Williams, Audrey Shepherd, Drifting Cowboys
By Hank_Williams_Drifting_Cowboys.jpg: MGM Recordsderivative work: GDuwenTell me! – This file was derived from:  Hank Williams Drifting Cowboys.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17111384

When the war ended, Hank returned to his roots and started performing again regularly for WSFA. A year later he would audition for The Grand Ole Opry. Sadly, he’d be rejected, once again due to his alcohol dependence, but as it was now obvious to everyone that underneath his drunken exterior lay a musical genius, Acuff-Rose Music took a chance on him and signed him to a six-song contract. These sessions would see him record “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin” among others and those two would become big enough hits that he would end up signing a deal with MGM. His first single, “Move It On Over”, showed just how adept Hank Williams truly was as it is one of the first rock n roll records ever to see the light of day and the next six years would be his most productive.

This would be the period where Hank Williams made country music. He finally got his shot at The Grand Ole Opry and went over so well that he ended up performing six encores. He scored his first-ever number one single with Lovesick Blues, a song that wasn’t meant to be anything but tape filler at the end of a session, and he wrote and performed some of the greatest tunes that the world has ever heard. Hey Good Looking, Your Cheating HeartLost Highway, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (which is my personal favorite), everything he touched during this period turned to gold, and soon Hank Williams was a roaring success. Still, behind the scenes, not everything was going to plan.

His drinking had gotten so out of control that in 1952 he was fired from The Grand Ole Opry as he could barely stand, let alone play, whenever he was booked. His live shows weren’t any better. When he was sober, no one could touch him, but those days were few and far between, and he would be in such a state that he’d stumble around the stage, forget what songs he was playing, or just not bother showing up at all. This all became too much for Audrey who left him in 1952. By now, he was abusing morphine in addition to alcohol after being involved in a hunting accident that made his already unbearable condition even worse. He found himself under Doctor Horace Marshall’s care whose answer to all of Hank’s problems was to load him up on so many drugs that Lemmy would’ve blushed. This was down to the fact that Doctor Horace Marshall wasn’t a doctor at all. He was a conman who’d managed to buy a $25 medical certificate from the Chicago School of Applied Science and prescribed Williams amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate, as well as morphine. This alone should’ve been enough to kill the man, but by now, he was also suffering from heart problems brought on by 16 years of alcohol abuse. So it was only a matter of time before Hank Williams body just gave up on him.

On Dec 31, 1952, Hank Williams was due to perform Municipal Auditorium in West Virginia, but all the planes were grounded due to a storm. Having hired a local college student, Charles Carr, to act as a gopher for him, Carr was told to drive Williams to the next gig in Ohio instead. Arriving at a hotel in Tennesse, Carr phoned for a doctor to come and administer a shot of B12 to his passenger as Hank was feeling the effects of chloral hydrate and booze that he’d been drinking on the journey. The doctor, P. H. Cardwell, gave Williams the shot with a grain of morphine chaser to help take off the edge. By now alarm bells should’ve been ringing with everyone involved as Hank Williams was in such a state that he had to be carried out to the car by a couple of porters, who later reported that he was coughing and hiccuping the whole way. But the show must go on, so Carr and Williams headed towards the next venue.

What happened next has been the subject of controversy for the past 68 years. According to Carr, who changed his story around a million times after the fact, on Jan. 1, 1953, they stopped at a diner. As he was leaving to grab some food, Carr asked Williams if he wanted anything to eat to which he replied he didn’t. These are thought to be Hank Williams last words. After they continued their journey, they would pull into a gas station further down the road, and when they did Carr realized that Williams had passed on and that rigor mortis had already begun to set in. Hank Williams was dead; he was 29.

Controversy surrounded Hank Williams in life, mainly due to his excessive alcohol and drug abuse, and in death, it would be no different. When it was announced at the venue he had been heading to that he had died on the way to the show, the audience laughed, thinking that it was just another excuse for him canceling his performance. It wasn’t until the other acts took to the stage to perform I Saw The Light as a tribute to him did they realize that he was truly gone. His autopsy didn’t fare any better either. The cause of death is listed as a heart attack, but his second wife, Billie Jean, never believed that to be the case, and she wasn’t the only one. Plenty of books have been written about the subject. None seem to agree with the original findings. This is mainly down to the report also saying that Williams had suffered severe trauma to his head and body, akin to having taken a hell of a beating.

Whatever happened to Hank Williams that night should never take away from what he left behind. His impact on country music was so big, so huge, that he is, quite rightly in my opinion, seen as the Father of the movement. He crossed over into the mainstream when it was impossible for a country star to ever achieve anything other than a hit within that community. He left a vast catalog behind him that still sounds as fresh and original today as it did back then. He was so much more than a drunk, he was one of the greatest songs writers ever to pick up a guitar, and his music speaks to everyone. If you know what it’s like to be lonely, then Hank Williams is for you. If you know what it’s like to be poor, then Hank Williams is for you. If you know what it’s like to have your heart broken, then Hank Williams is for you. If you know what it’s like to battle inner demons, then Hank Williams is for you. I know it’s very unfashionable to listen to country music—especially considering the current political and social climate we find ourselves in—but to neglect certain artists just because the arena in which they chose to deliver their stories has a terrible history is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

So do yourself a favor. Take five minutes. Head over to YouTube and just give your ears the pleasure of discovering one of the greatest country singers of all time. I promise you; you won’t be disappointed.

Neil Gray

Written by Neil Gray

Neil Gray is the host of The Old Metal Bar-Steward podcast.

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