Hank Williams – 60 years down the Lost Highway

January 1st. A day when everyone in the Gregorian world recognizes the birth of a new year. It’s a day when celebrations of various and sundry sorts take place. A day when we all ceremonially shout “out with the old and in with the new.” We collectively consider that the old bearded man in the robe bearing the scythe ends his tenure as the representative of time marked, takes his final bow and drapes the mantle of cosmic time-keeper upon a new bearer. Celebrations are in order. Resolutions are made which entail promises soon forgotten. What existed and became old is suddenly, mystically reborn as new, yet we sing in solemn drunken remembrance “Lest old acquaintance be forgot…” There’s always that human tendency to hold on to the past and, dare we say, resurrect it in a glorious form which supersedes its former state. For the purpose of this article maybe it’s our proclivity for guilt-driven acknowledgment of that which we held in our grasp and were transfixed upon, to only become disenchanted with as soon as the flashbulbs were pointed in different directions. There’s a long list of notables who passed away on January 1st, most of whom are lost upon us, but there remains one whose death at a mere 29 years of age casts perhaps one of the greatest of shadows across the musical landscape in modern times. Where that single tick of the clock takes us from something finished to something born anew, let the story begin.

Hiram King Williams would be better known to the world as “Hank”. His given birth name was the result of his father, Elonzo Huble Williams, being a Freemason, and his mother Jessie Lillybelle Skipper, a member of The Order of the Eastern Star, the Masonic female order. Old Testament personage King Hiram I of Tyre was a very figurative character in the history of Freemasonry and is considered in Masonic lore to have been one of three founders of the Order, hence the name Hiram King for this child born in Mount Olive, Alabama. The pressures of living up to an image had begun at birth. Young Hiram never knew the intensity of wealth and celebrity until he was just old enough and susceptible enough to allow it to kill him. There are the stories everyone knows. Some are true, some are as bullshit as the compost that fertilized an Alabama farmer’s crop field. But then, that is what makes a legend grow.

To a shy, skinny kid with glasses, the years after the stock market crashed amounted to not as much as a blip on the radar. When your daddy was living in a V.A. hospital miles away in Alexandria, Louisiana, the result of a logging industry accident and a brain aneurysm, and your mama sent you into the streets to shine shoes and sell peanuts to supplement the family income you look at the news differently. Words like recession, depression, or stock market carried little meaning as they signified no change in lifestyle. Everyone knows (or should know) that young Hank met a black street performer named Rufus Payne when young Hiram was a shoe-shine boy and peanut salesman on the streets of Georgiana, Alabama. The record holds that Payne, better known as “Tee Tot”, befriended the boy on the streets and taught “Harm” to play guitar. Taught him the gut and gravel aspect of the real blues. Brought the shy, skinny, bespectacled kid out of his unimposing shell and planted the seed of confidence in him. What people don’t know is that Tee Tot, an arguable John the Baptist, died relatively young (believed 55) in a charity hospital in Montgomery and is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave somewhere in Lincoln Cemetery in Montgomery. The exact spot is unknown to this day – But is in the same town as the messiah he heralded. The old Jim Crow south was unforgiving and Payne knew the potential for trouble that having a young white boy following him around might cause, and, according to Hank’s sister, Irene, came to Lillie, Hank and Irene’s mother, and voiced that concern.

Lilliebelle Skipper Williams Found herself running boarding houses in Greenville and Garland, Alabama, respectively, and the common knowledge at the time was that prostitutes worked out of those boarding houses. Who knows what young Hank knew about that. A woman driven during the Great Depression to provide for her kids will improvise. Adapt and overcome. The entrepreneurial spirit is what made this country great, right? Lon’s pension money and Lillie’s business savvy got the family through the years of the Great Depression well enough and probably provided Hank with more carnal knowledge than any boy ought to be privy to. Second-hand knowledge, of course. And Lillie was always there, pushing that boy to do more.

“Everybody’s sayin’ I’ve been sinkin‘…like I got some kinda damned ol’ curse…they keep talkin’ about my drinkin’…but they don’t know nothing’ about my thirst…” ~ Kevin Welch (“Anna Lise Please”).

Physicians in more modern times have derived from the records of Hank’s life that he was born with a mild case of Spina Bifida, an opening of the vertebra that left a portion of the spinal cord exposed. Back pain plagued Hank for the duration of his short life. He once told a friend later in his life that he had TB of the spine, and was sure he wasn’t long for this earth. To the lowly, rural southern boy drinking was a rite of passage. Hank (the name he assumed for himself as a teen) was a natural for the indulgence. Many biographers relate his early drinking to his hanging out with Tee Tot, and, as a youngster, that might be true. But a country boy in those days that loved a guitar and the blues was as bound to pop a top as anybody in the demographic, but for physical pain the remedy had long since been a stiff drink of alcohol, and Hank had experienced plenty of that. His propensity for the comforts of bottled spirits equaled or surpassed his propensity for the Spirit of the Holy sort. That juxtaposition gave birth, no doubt, to the demons that he both loved and loathed. One of those demons was called Marriage…perhaps his greatest contradiction of ideals.

Audrey Mae Sheppard stood with her Mama listening to a cowboy hat wearing singer who was hawking a brand of serum from the bed of a truck that would cure every illness from asthma to arthritis, rickets to rheumatism, and make a 45 year old woman look 25. According to Audrey’s account Hank approached her to pitch the product to her and said “Ma’am, don’t you think you need some of these herbs?” and upon looking Audrey in the face, said, “No Ma’am, I don’t believe you do”. Thus began the lonely, lovelorn aspect of the Hank Williams legend. Bullshit? There are varying accounts of who cheated on who, but the general consensus is that they both cheated on each other. Who knows, or who cares. It was the prototypical Country Star marriage, of which lyrics would be written, songs would be sling-shat up the charts, over which tears would be shed and liquor bottles emptied. The jukebox business across the country felt the tremors of the earthquake that was the Hank and Miss Audrey story. Hank had lived a life, thus far, of reluctant submission to the big-framed and dominating Lillie, his mother. Lillie considered herself Hank’s manager and she both cherished and choked on the role. She owned him. She exploited him. Knew he was her ace-in-the-hole. So the sudden arrival of a pretty little gal from Pike County, Alabama who infused herself into Hank’s life like a good skin graft was often a formidable source of contention. Two bull-headed, domineering women, one hillbilly singer. Hank was the white counterpart of Robert Johnson, but the hellhounds weren’t done with ol’ “Harm”.

There are the authors; numerous bios have been written about the man over the years. Roger Williams (Sing A Sad Song, 1970), Colin Escott (Hank Williams: The Biography, 1994), Paul Hemphill (Lovesick Blues, 2005), Chet Flippo (Your Cheatin’ Heart, 1981), a very sentimental recollection from the memory of a daughter, Lycrecia, who was two years old when Hank and “Miss Ordrey” met, called “Still In Love With You – A daughter’s true story” (1989). Then there was the skeleton in Hank’s closet that everyone in the family knew was there, but which came rattling out into public full steam in the 80’s. Hank died in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1953 and five days later his illegitimate daughter was born. Antha Belle Jett, born of a short affair between Hank and Bobbie Jett, came into the world and her mother turned the child over to Hank’s mother and fled to California. Hank left a hand written letter expressing that he would financially be responsible for the child once she was born. After Lillie’s death she experienced years of moving from one set of foster parents to another, she began to hear rumors of her relation to the greatest country singer of all time, and thus began a long, often painful legal journey to uncover the truth. Now she is known as Jett Williams, and, since winning the long battle, has become the co-executor of the Hank Williams estate with her proven half brother, Randall Hank Williams, or Hank Jr. Her remarkable story is documented in her book Ain’t Nothin’ Sweet As My Baby (1990).

(Waylon sings) “Now Hank, you just gotta tell me…did your daddy really write all them songs?” (Hank Jr. sings) “That don’t deserve no answer, Hoss…let’s light up and just move along.”

In these biographies many stories are told, some by all of them, others being unique to the author and his research. It’s held that Hank and Audrey’s marriage (performed at a Texaco Station by a justice of the peace) wasn’t legit because they were married only ten days after her divorce from her husband, and Alabama required a sixty day wait before remarriage was allowed. That was an allegation which, no doubt caused Hank Jr. more than a little heartburn. There are the earlier stories of Hank’s drunkenness being the cause of his being fired from his first local radio shows in the early days, and his being fired from the Opry for the same reasons years later everyone is aware of. Then there were the first attempts at putting the famed Drifting Cowboys together which fell apart due to the U.S. involvement in WWII. Everyone got drafted. That is except Hank, who had been issued a 4-F deferment due to an injury sustained from falling off a bull in a Texas rodeo (boys with mild Spina Bifida ought not be on the back of a crazy damned bull to begin with) and being deemed medically unfit for duty. There are the stories of Audrey’s insistence that she be a featured part of the show, to Hank’s chagrin (and everyone else’s). There were stories that held that Hank didn’t write some of his biggest hits. My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It, a traditional black street minstrel tune, was taught to him by Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne during his early teen years. His debut performance at the Grand Ol’ Opry, witnessed by Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, and which earned him several encores that night, was Lovesick Blues, which had been written by Clifford Friend and Irving Mills. The very cryptic Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, another country singer of the time. Chet Flippo entertained the notion that Hank bought Cold, Cold Heart from an unknown writer named Paul Gilley, a Kentucky fellow who would often sell lyrics to performers who would take the writing credits for themselves. According to Flippo, Gilley also wrote the core lyrics which ultimately became I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, after Hank and Fred Rose put their flourishes to it. Hell, even Audrey herself claimed to have written a few that Hank took the credits for. Stories…oh the stories…things most don’t know, things that aren’t verifiable, things folks would rather not know. Hank once said to a friend that “they’re slicing me up and selling me like bologna”. Hank, brother, they still do.

Then there began the later legendary drugs and drink tales. The drunken fights, the pissing himself, the reliance on pills (red up, white down), chloral hydrate, morphine, and the ever present alcohol to numb that devil that lived in his back, the severely bruised groin revealed in his autopsy, delivered by the angry boot of a jealous boyfriend. The divorce from an exasperated Audrey. The subsequent marriage to Billie Jean Jones, from whom Audrey bought the rights to the claim of widow of Hank Williams, after his death. The wedding to Billie Jean was a spectacle that took place in a civic auditorium, the ceremony being performed twice to accommodate the enormous crowd that was present to witness it. As a side note, Billie Jean went on to later marry Johnny Horton, who also died tragically young. Then there was the wolf in sheep’s clothing he met in Oklahoma in 1952 named Horace Raphol “Toby” Marshall, a man who claimed to be a doctor and wasn’t. In fact he had been a convict in an Oklahoma penitentiary for forgery and had only been paroled in ‘51. Once again, Hank had placed himself in the care of one who sought only to suck him dry of everything that could be gotten from him. This fraudulent “doctor” supplied Hank with all the amphetamines, chloral hydrate, and morphine Hank wanted.

 

The stories continue to be told, often in contradiction of each other about that fateful, final road trip. As always, there is the official account, then there are those who contradict it. It is fact that Hank was scheduled to play in West Virginia on Dec. 31. Ice and snow prevented the flight from taking off and a college student named Charles Carr was hired to drive Hank’s convertible Cadillac to the show, which had to be cancelled as there was no possibility that they‘d make it on time. The ticket sales had been spectacular. The revised plan was to carry on to Canton, Ohio for a big New Years day show. Hank had spent the night before at the Andrew Johnson hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a Dr. P.H. Cardwell injected Hank with two B12 shots with a morphine spike, atop the alcohol Hank had consumed. Some at that scene say he was believed dead as they exited the hotel, as his limp, piss soaked body was carried from the hotel to the car. From this point it begins to get mysterious. It happens like that on two lane blacktops through the mountains of Tennessee and the Virginias in the middle of the night. What enters this surreal zone at dusk too often emerges at dawn blurry and twisted. Memory is as foggy as the thick, cold, black night, facts are scrambled or lost. There is even a man who claims that he was a second driver used to relieve Carr for the W. Virginia stretch (a claim Carr denies). A stop at an all-night diner, The Skyline Drive-In, in Bristol, Virginia, at which Carr asked Hank if he’d like anything to eat and the semi-conscious star said he did not (evidence that Hank wasn‘t dead in Knoxville). Then, sometime after midnight, came the stop at Burdette’s Pure Oil station in Oak Hill, West Virginia. Carr, while reaching back to pull the cover back over his famous passenger, brushed against Hank’s hand and noticed it to be very cold and stiff. Even to this point, there are contradicting stories as to the events just described. Carr has been accused of altering the story for fear he would be charged with some sort of crime, but he remains to this day, and his story hasn’t changed. It all serves to add to the mystique and legend of that fateful “last ride” and the enigmatic figure at the heart of it all.

So here we stand. At the time of the finishing of this piece 2013 is only eight days old… Elvis’s birthday, coincidentally. Another New Year has befallen us and many things are different, many things are the same, many things celebrated as new are, in fact, old. We pretend as the ball drops in Times Square that this year will be different, an intrinsic method we have of bullshitting ourselves into believing some illusion of advancement, of evolution. King Solomon said that there is nothing new under the sun. What is happening now has happened before. We still bestow upon mortal men idyllic mantels, we still designate our “anointed one”. That “one” will always be a human that has managed to piss off an entire generation, but he is always the one whose name we remember. No matter the wrong, no matter the right, no matter the politics or the moral integrity. History is indented, as indelibly as with Braille, with the legends of flawed mortals who rose above the strictures of humanity and, too often, unintentionally seared their brand into the annals of human history. Angels with singed wings have often been the metaphor for a human being who was possessed of greatness. This look at the life of an Alabama poor boy has been detailed with a wrongness, a sadness, a cursedness that masks the genius that the legend is made of. The tainted are often the trailblazers of renown. It is their reckless abandonment of convention that enables them to venture into territory void of human footprint. That ignorance or abandonment of cultural etiquette also exponentiates the propensity for bad decisions, irresponsibility, and seems to draw in any and every destructive influence. Hank Williams never aspired to be a role model. He never imagined, in his small world view, that he’d be an icon. He wanted to sing on the radio. That was pretty much it. One things stands as a certainty – no man in the musical world has stood in the modern era as the scapegoat, bearing the weight of sin and wrong on his shoulders, becoming that sin, and bleeding because of it for all of us, that the load may be lightened and we can feel a little more like redeemed humans again. Hiram King “Hank” Williams unwittingly took that role upon himself.

When the world awoke on January 1st, 1953, a transformation had taken place. The common son of common man, resplendent in his flawed state, his maimed body, his weight-laden soul, and his tormented mind was born anew. The stone had been rolled away and the musical Messiah of the blue-collar faith had been born.

~ Jeff Hopson
Jeff resides in Garland, TX and has been in the Lone Star State since September of 1989, when he moved here from his native Tennessee. After three and a half years in Nashville, he channeled the spirit of his upper East Tennessee kinsman, a certain diplomat named Crockett, and stated, “You may all go to hell…I will go to Texas”.  Jeff is a songwriter and performs often in the North Texas region, and has a collection of short fiction in the works.

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