For most of us New Year’s Eve is a fun night, at least the ones we remember. Filled with friends, music, food, libations and all manor of mirth. It is a celebration of accomplishment mixed with a refreshing of ones outlook mixed with hope for the future mixed with champagne. That is all very alluring, especially as I write this the day before NYE, but this event calls something else to mind for me. Somewhere amid New Year’s Eve and New Year’s morning 1952-53 country music, Nay!, all of music lost one of the most notorious and prolific talents ever to walk the Earth. Hank Williams.
Hank truly was the very first rock star, and the most wanted outlaw to this day. Beset by the physical anguish of a spinal column disorder and the psychological burdens of a poet, Hank, using irrevocable candor and unequivocal simplicity, raised the bar of country music to an unattainable degree. When we talk about legends and icons we have to be sure to account for time and place in history. Aleatorically there will never be another Hank Williams, Beatles or Elvis because only one person can be the first to do something. Notwithstanding, Hank’s story, talent, habits, and early demise all contribute to making him the pinnacle of country music lore.
Hiram “Hank” Williams was born September 17, 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama. Hank learned to play guitar from an old black street performer trading lessons for food or money. By 1937 he had relocated to Montgomery, AL where he formed the Drifting Cowboys. Williams was hired by radio station WSFA to host and perform. At this point he dropped out of school to fully pursue his career which was managed by his mother.
WWII called most of his original bandmates to serve and WSFA released Hank due to alcoholism. Luckily for us, and the history of country music, he was a tenacious young man. During this time Hank left his original label for to sign with MGM Records under publisher Acuff-Rose Music, and wed Audrey Sheppard. The two were together for a decade and their marital antics are those of country music legend. One must believe the hundreds of songs spanning all reaches of love, hate, revenge, sorrow, comedy and redemption had to have spawned from that single muse. Oh, what a woman could do. On May 26, 1949 the couple had a son who Hank nicknamed Bocephus.
By 1949 Hank was a member of the Louisiana Hayride show and released “Lovesick Blues”, which propelled him into stardom. After being denied at first he was offered to join the Grand Ole Opry. Attempting to list his most influential songs would be an exercise in futility. He had a way of writing such succinct, simple, yet heart wrenching truths. It did not matter whether it was lost love, in love, partying, or religion. Jokingly, serious or at times downright morose. “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “I’m So lonesome I could Cry”, “Kawliga”, “Cold Cold Heart”, “Lost Highway”, need I continue? Gospel staple “I saw the Light” continues to be sung in worship services nationwide.
Unfortunately there is a low to every high. Alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, attributed to years of back pain, lead to a divorce and dismissal from the Opry citing unreliability and frequent inebriation. Hank was adamant about not mixing substances with the music. So he just wouldn’t show.
His second marriage was to Billy Jean Jones. Hank stole her from Faron Young and she later married Johnny Horton as well as being a performer herself. The tradition of promiscuity among Nashville artists persists today. We all need a muse, I suppose.
Some say 1952 brought a revitalization to Hank’s spirit. He began to regain opportunities despite the trepidation of venue owners. He was scheduled to play in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve. Flights were cancelled due to weather in Nashville so Williams hired a college student to drive to the venue. Along the way it became evident that the inclemency would preclude them from making the show and Williams was told to head on to Canton, Ohio for the New Year’s Day show.
In Knoxville, TN Hank became ill. It was said to be a combination of chloral hydrate and alcohol. They stopped at a hotel to request a doctor who dosed Williams with a shot of B12 containing morphine. Needing to be carried to his car the driver and porters laid Hank in the backseat of his blue Cadillac. Somewhere in Oak Hill, West Virginia the car stopped to refuel and that is where Hank was discovered dead. Next to Hank was a few pages of unfinished song lyrics.
Lots of controversy surrounds the night of Hank’s last ride, but ours is not to question. Let us only, among toasting glasses and midnight kisses, remember the music and thank that we get to live in the legacy of the hillbilly Shakespeare. Luke the Drifter. The Godfather of country music. Hank Williams.