Feature Article: Separate truth from fiction in country icon Hank Williams’ final days

By  Rush Evans

Hank Color.jpgOn Dec. 19, 1952, Hank Williams arrived by Cadillac at the Skyline Club, a small joint just north of Austin, Texas, on the old Dallas Highway. He was there to do what he did best: sing his songs of joy and sadness and praise and honky tonkin’ and drinkin’ and heartbreak — plenty of heartbreak.

The Skyline ideally only held a few hundred dancers and music fans, but a thousand people turned up to see the most famous and successful country musician in America, one destined for history as the archetype, the model, the quintessential artist to which all others would aspire.
Hank was driven to the Skyline from Dallas by the Austin club’s owner, Warren Stark. That was one way to ensure that the famously drunk and volatile musical hero showed up for his own gig. Hank Williams had been known to turn in a short and drunken show or two, and to miss others altogether.

At the Austin show, the usually intoxicated Hank was actually in top form, playing coherently and passionately without a break, working his way through his rich catalog with the wide range of feelings that had always been inside him. They had to be there. How else could he have written those songs?

When he got up in front of that local house band, he sang everything he knew, doing some songs twice, including a little-known obscurity called “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and doing some uncharacteristic gospel tunes a full 36 hours before the Friday night sinners would set foot in church.

Unknown to everyone at the Skyline, including Hank himself, this would be his last time to perform for dancers who connected so completely with his insightful songs of simple truth. Or not.

Herein lies the essence of the story of Hank Williams.

More than half a century after his death, conflicting stories abound regarding the man and the music that defined him. Legend is a word thrown around pretty freely in the world of music criticism; in the case of Hank, the word applies in two meanings, including the true Webster definition: “legend — a story coming down from the past; especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.”

The stories are legion, like the time a doctor supposedly demanded that he sit down and write six songs as a means for sobering up, which produced both “You Win Again” and “Jambalaya.”

Some believe that his publishing partner, Fred Rose, was the primary composer of many of Hank Williams’ songs, and that Hank was too unfocused, too flighty, too drunk to have channeled so much misery so succinctly, so beautifully. He felt those songs though, and he lived them in ways that Rose did not.

Most striking about all the songs associated with Hank is their universal accessibility. As country as Hank was, with his unavoidably genuine southern accented voice, these were songs of the purest pop form. You didn’t have to be from Alabama to relate to songs like “Cold, Cold Heart” or “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.”

Hank’s life itself was a series of contradictions, which makes the truth even tougher to uncover. He was an alcoholic who could undergo long periods of sobriety. He sang songs of the wild life and songs of faith. He was a reckless playboy and a devoted family man. He was an upbeat guy with mean old miseries in his soul. He was an uneducated hillbilly and a creative genius. And most of all, he was a man with a carefree attitude about life who also had a remarkable ability to articulate any human feeling with depth and despair at the Shakespearean level.

Hank apparently didn’t really play three hours that night in Austin, and he probably wasn’t sober as a judge, though that’s how some remember it. And depending on how you look at it, it wasn’t even his last performance. But we’ll get back to that. Hank Williams had covered a lot of ground on the long, lost highway before he hit the honky-tonk stage of the Skyline Club.

LOVESICK BLUES BOY

Hank Williams came from the humblest of beginnings, a scrawny country boy from rural Alabama whose frail body and crooked back (later identified as spina bifida) rendered him mostly useless for any sort of hard labor, which worked out fine for the kid who was more interested in music.

During the segregated ‘30s, young Hank learned to play the guitar from a black man called Tee Tot, a sober nickname ironically timed to coincide with the other great influence on the youthful Williams: alcohol. Hank learned to drink during Prohibition.

Tee Tot and the bottle set Hank on his way. A lifetime of music, heartbreak, pain, sorrow and occasional pleasure lay ahead.
Hank was an unsophisticated and uneducated kid, but he understood music, and he knew how to tell a story. He wasn’t very articulate in a conversation, but he knew how to say things in the songs he made up. He sang of weaknesses and imperfections — sometimes for laughter, sometimes for tears — because he knew them firsthand. He had plenty of both.

In the mid-’40s, when he was in his 20s, he seemed to come out of nowhere into the radios of good people across the south. He first showed up on the “Louisiana Hayride,” the second-most important radio broadcast out there, and its signal would reach across most every southern state line.

The swagger of “Move It On Over,” the unrequited love of “Mansion on the Hill,” and the desperation of “Lost Highway” came through jukebox speakers, too, loud and clear with a voice that had an everyman quality, cutting straight to the heart of emotions with which anyone could identify. His voice was tough but vulnerable, bearing a slight tremolo that betrayed his fragility.

He was us. Each song was a two-minute exercise in understated simplicity, sung with conviction and sincerity. Hank’s voice was that of a man who understood anguish, pain and the darkest corners of the human mind.

His words did the same thing. They were sometimes bleak, sometimes joyful, always direct, always plain-spoken. And they were pure poetry.

I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
‘Til I hear an old freight rollin’
down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d
blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me
He made a ramblin’ man
(from “Ramblin’ Man”)

It was a song he didn’t write that forced the heart of country music, Nashville, to take note and listen to the kid whose remake of an old blues song revealed a heartbroken wisdom far beyond his years.

The Grand Ol’ Opry was the pinnacle, the place to be for singing a country song to a big audience on a Saturday night broadcast, and that’s where “Lovesick Blues” took the country by storm. It wasn’t even really a country song, but Hank sang it with a broken and cracking yodel that was really more of a pained howl from an old soul. Nobody had heard yodeling like this, and they certainly hadn’t heard a song like this one, either.

There were plenty more where it came from, and he would spend the next five years at the top of his game, eclipsing Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold, the most successful artists before Hank showed up with his unique brand of honky-tonk music. His band, the Drifting Cowboys, contributed in perfect synchronicity, as the fiddle and steel guitar cried right along with that voice — haunting, mournful and powerful.

DRUNK AND SOBER

They were mostly happy times, logically enough, because the young star went from nowhere to the top, made a lot of money, fronted a good band, sold a lot of records, became a celebrity and married a woman he loved. Beyond all this, he was also a pretty good guy. Most of the time, anyway.

Those who knew him liked Hank, though he was disconnected and detached in most social situations. He even referred to himself in the third person as Ol’ Hank, an inaccurate declaration when looking at the calendar, but a true description for the old soul that he was, and the old body that had already been so beaten down by the spinal issues he never asked for and the firewater he loved too much.

“I liked him very well,” remembered recording artist Hank Thompson just six months before his death in November 2007. “And I had a lot of respect for his performing ability. In fact, he was one of the best I ever saw on stage. We worked a lot together. I stayed at his apartment when I came in to do the Opry one time when he and Audrey were separated, and we would work and go out and honky-tonk together.”

This is where the legends start — probably all true in some variation — because by all accounts, Nice Guy Hank was capable of shockingly extreme behavior when drinking. And he did plenty of that, though the frequency of his use has been debated.

Thompson, who was himself one of the most successful artists of the ‘40s and ‘50s, knew his musical friend as a kind-hearted man of sobriety.

“All the times I was ever around him, I never did see him ever take a drink,” said Thompson. “And also, I never saw him eat a bite of food. It was one of those things that if he got onto it, then they had to take him to the hospital. So, he did drink and have an alcohol problem, but he’d space it out to two or three times a year.”

The biographies of Hank sometimes depict a Hank who, when desperate for booze, would resort to mixing rubbing alcohol with a jug of tomato juice on a Bloody Mary morning in a hotel room, while other times they reveal a Hank who could have one beer and be plastered beyond his own ability to stand up. Again, both extremes are conceivably true. Hank did go months without a drink, and he was well aware of his problem. There was no denial on his part, but there was also no clear way to overcome it.

The unbearable back pain that plagued him only grew over time, and the pain that his tempestuous wife, Audrey, provided was equally disabling. There are as many stories of happiness as there are ones of horror regarding the holy and unholy union of Hank and Audrey. What started out as wedded bliss soon became the marriage from hell, but never has a woman done such a good job of inspiring so many great songs. Such physical and emotional pain can drive a man to drink. And so he did.

1952

The final year of Hank Williams’ life was tragic by any measure, but it’s fair to say that the years leading up to it had done a pretty good job of setting the stage.

By 1952, a lifetime of drinking and crippling spina bifida was beginning to take its toll. And had he lived in a different era, the word anorexic might be used to describe his bony, malnourished physical state, but his condition wasn’t motivated by vanity. It was the result of that insatiable desire for booze, so strong that he’d often just drink his dinner and supper.

The darkest days of ’52 really began at the end of ‘51, when Hank disbanded the Drifting Cowboys, scheduled long-overdue back surgery, and once and for all ended his train wreck of a marriage. According to Audrey Williams, it was she who ended it, but, given the fact that she spent the next two decades playing the role of grieving widow and molding their son into a tribute singer, her stories must be taken with at least some skepticism.

She once told an interviewer that he fired four gunshots at home the day she took the kids and left. She was unsure of the intended target, but she called him a few days later to say that she’d never live with him again. That was New Year’s Eve.

During a public squabble with Audrey several months later, Hank allegedly fired a gun straight at her — and he missed the head of one June Carter by mere inches (this was shortly after Hank’s marriage proposal had been turned down by her sister, Anita Carter). If this one’s true, and if Audrey or June had been hit, Hank Williams would have been remembered far less favorably, if at all.

The end of the marriage also meant the end of regular contact with his nearly three-year-old son, Randall Hank, and 11-year-old stepdaughter, Lycrecia. It was around this time that Hank was also seeing a dancer named Bobbie Jett, and it’s unclear if this began before or after the final split with Audrey. There is, however, no dispute that it happened, as Jett gave birth to a daughter a few days after Hank’s death.

The full story of that daughter wouldn’t be told until she was an adult, and the woman now known as Jett Williams had learned and confirmed that Hank Williams was indeed her biological father. Hank knew of the pregnancy and that his child was on the way.

Somewhere about this time, Hank wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a clear message directed straight at Audrey, but given his clandestine affair, maybe he saw himself in it, too. In September, he would record the song and three others in Nashville, a two-hour session that would be his last.

Hank’s erratic behavior and unreliability had led to his firing from the Grand Ol’ Opry in August, where even his fame as the biggest star in country music couldn’t save him. As far as Hank himself was concerned, he had actually quit the Opry on his own. When the Opry’s Jim Denny gave him the news, he responded with, “You can’t fire me, ‘cause I already quit.”

Hank Williams was becoming Luke the Drifter, his artistic alter ego, the name under which he recorded his often sad or moralistic recitations. He was a drifter, all right, with no band, no wife, no kids, no Opry and a monkey on his aching back that he couldn’t shake loose.

He had gotten fired from the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show three years earlier, but the show took him back in September ’52, right around the time that he seemed to be creating a new life for himself. Despite all he’d been through, Hank was hopeful about his future, and he was sure ready to take up with someone without such a cold, cold heart.

NEW WIFE, NEW LIFE

The woman who would become his second wife was dating country star Faron Young when Hank first met her. Hank wanted the striking Billie Jean Jones for himself at first sight, so he persuaded Young to relinquish her by pulling a gun on him.

There is some question as to whether Hank or Faron actually wrote a song called “Goin’ Steady,” which is credited to Young, who also recorded it. Hank Williams might have written it, and it might have even been used as a sort of trade for possession of Billie Jean. We’ll probably never know for sure.

Billie Jean quickly learned of the rollercoaster ride that life with Hank Williams would be when Hank was arrested in August in Alexander City, Ala., after yelling and running in a hotel’s halls in the middle of the night. An infamous, unflattering photo of the shockingly thin and shirtless Hank is attributed to this night, but some believe it represents another incident. And there were certainly others.

The two planned to marry, and it was a rocky engagement. The teenage Billie Jean found herself caring for her husband-to-be by checking him into the North Louisiana Sanitarium three separate times to dry out. She would leave Hank at least once before the Oct. 19 wedding date.

The wedding itself was hardly the idyllic picture of people in love surrounded by their friends and families. Hank had visible welts from God-knows-where on a swollen face that sat atop a scrawny and wobbly frame. He’d invited ex-wife Audrey (actually, their divorce wasn’t yet final) out of spite, and she threatened to come and disrupt it. That’s why Hank and Billie Jean went ahead and got secretly married the day before by a Justice of the Peace.

Some accounts have noted that Hank met Audrey at the airport on the day of his wedding to Billie Jean in hopes of a final reconciliation. When she refused, he put her back on a plane for Nashville, and proceeded with marrying his new bride. Like so much else, this may or may not have happened.

What did happen was that the “big” wedding became another show — two actually. Tickets were sold for the ceremony at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, at a cost ranging from $1 to $2.80.

Hank needed the money, as the financial side of his life had also fallen apart over the course of ’52. He was the biggest star in the country, but the dance halls that he usually played held hundreds, not thousands.

Fourteen thousand fans showed up for the wedding which was
“performed” twice, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. That’s a lot of people for a country music show in 1952. His fans knew his songs and identified with them. The fans were the truest friends that Hank had anymore. They didn’t judge his personal weaknesses, though that’s precisely where his songs came from.

Billie Jean didn’t judge him either, as she was a happy 19-year-old bride. Ol’ Hank was in terrible shape; he even collapsed shortly after the wedding ceremony, at which champagne had freely flowed.
But, according to Billie Jean, he really had a new outlook on life, unburdened by the train wreck that was his first marriage, and freed from the trappings of stardom, living for a time in a humble rent house in Shreveport instead of the mansion that had gone to Audrey, Hank Jr. and Lycrecia.

Even that didn’t last, though, and it wasn’t long before country’s biggest star and his bride moved into his mother’s boarding house.  
Being fired from the Opry had actually helped to simplify his life, and he was planning to take a leave of absence from the “Louisiana Hayride.” After the wedding, the road got shorter for Hank, and the clubs got smaller because of his growing reputation as a no-show.

So, despite having the #1 country song, “Jambalaya,” in the final months of the year, short tours rarely took him too far from his Louisiana home. And that’s how it was when Hank Williams headed to Texas without Billie Jean for a week’s worth of dates in December.

FROM DALLAS TO AUSTIN
Hank was doing all he could to put his life back together, and that included employing Dr. Toby Marshall, himself a recovering alcoholic, to cure what ailed him.

Marshall created an unusual medical sequence that made for an entirely simulated existence: Drink two beers in the morning, take an injection to force vomiting, down plenty of black coffee and Dexedrine tablets, do a show, drink more beers, and take downers to go to sleep. Marshall, who didn’t have a real medical degree, also introduced chloral hydrate, a powerful drug that he believed would be helpful for his famous and exclusive patient.

Marshall wasn’t really a doctor who had perfected a new medical way to treat alcoholism. It was later revealed that he was not a doctor at all, just some guy who had bought a diploma from a traveling salesman.

Sammy Allred, one half of the legendary Geezinslaws, who have been performing ever since those Skyline days, remembers what Skyline owner Warren Stark had to say about the medicated Hank. “Warren said they would, after the show, hit Hank with a needle, throw him in the backseat of the car, get to the next show, then stick another needle in him, wake him up, push him out on the stage.”
 
Allred had met and talked with an amiable Hank at another Austin gig a few years earlier. “When I talked to Hank Williams, he wasn’t even drunk!”

The Marshall cocktail rendered Hank unable to perform in Victoria, Texas, on Monday, but he did make it on stage Tuesday in San Antonio, Wednesday in Dallas, and Thursday in Snook. Hank was backed by house bands at each gig, and he was traveling only with Marshall and Warren Stark.

Wednesday night was Dallas, a city tied to another Hank Williams legend. A previous visit there involved a drunken Hank unable to stand up, let alone put on a show. The club’s opportunistic owner reportedly charged people admission to come get a glance of their fallen hero knocked-out loaded on the floor backstage.

It was not the last time that Jack Ruby would be associated with such a shadowy moment in history. This time around, Hank was able to perform in Dallas, and after the gig, he and Marshall and Stark went to see the premiere practitioner of Western Swing, Bob Wills, perform at another Dallas club.

Hank’s connection to Wills represents yet another fuzzy piece of legendary history. Stories have circulated among Wills fans that after Bob fired smooth crooner Tommy Duncan as his vocalist in 1948, Hank Williams contacted Johnnie Lee Wills in the hopes of auditioning for the Duncan slot in brother Bob’s band.

Johnnie Lee had his own swing band at the time, and he invited Hank to sit in with him at a show in Tulsa, which supposedly happened (though it doesn’t appear in the prominent biographies of either artist). Bob apparently told Johnnie Lee, “You hire him if you want to. I don’t want anyone on my stage who sings through his nose.” Hank turned down Johnnie Lee’s offer. He wanted to sing with Bob.

On that Dallas night in ‘52, Hank ran into another Western Swing pioneer, his former roommate, Ray Price, with whom he booked a lunch for the day after both of their New Year’s gigs in Ohio.

THE SKYLINE

Stark, Marshall and Hank made it into Austin in time for the Skyline gig; Hank’s mother, Lillie, came in from Louisiana and met them there.
Austin had been a frequent Williams stop in previous years, with performances at the City Coliseum right downtown and the old Dessau Hall north of town. The Skyline sat on the old Dallas Highway, also a good ways north of the edge of town, far enough that there was no way you could see the city’s actual skyline, which at that time consisted solely of the state capitol building and the University of Texas tower.

“It was a small place. You were right there with the audience, and they’d just all gang around. It was a fun place to play from that standpoint,” said Hank Thompson.

The ceiling was low and the stage sat only a few inches higher than the hardwood dance floor. “At that time it would only hold about two hundred, maybe two fifty at the most. We’d always have it jam- packed with people. It was a very intimate place to play,” said Thompson.

Different accounts refer to 800 people or a thousand that night. How that many fit into the club on that Friday night in December, one can only imagine, and that is only one of the many mysteries surrounding Hank’s performance.

Paul Hemphill’s Williams biography speaks of that night as a three-hour tour de force on Hank’s part, a show to prove that he was really on his way back to wellness, success and happiness.
Colin Escott’s bio speaks just as glowingly, though it refers to Hank turning in two sets.

Joann Haynes was there that night, having come in from Florence, Texas, with friends to see Hank Williams.

“He just acted like a plain old country boy, real nice; he didn’t talk a lot. He wore a white suit and a white hat,” remembers Haynes, who was 17 at the time. “He just got up there and sang his heart out.”
Brother-and-sister-singing act Tommy and Goldie Hill, who shared the bill that night, remembered it as one of the best shows they’d ever seen, with Hank on stage until 1 a.m. Tommy Hill remembered Hank’s rare inclusion of gospel songs, which is also noted in Chet Flippo’s book on Hank.

Both Hills are gone now, but Jim Grabowske, the steel guitar player from the Skyline’s house band, still lives in Austin. And he remembers that night a little differently.

“You had to close at 12 a.m. Back then they had the liquor laws,” remembers Grabowske, a steel player in several prominent Austin bands of the time. “Normally, we would open the show, and then they [the guest headliner] would make three special presentations. We would play 30 minutes or longer, they would come on and play 30 minutes, then they would leave, and we would play. They would come back three different times.”

Grabowske had backed up Hank a number of times at the Skyline and Dessau Hall, the other popular country music joint in town. Like so many others, he remembers Hank Williams as a friendly person, though not easy to get to know. “He wasn’t a real outgoing person, but he was very likeable, and a crowd-pleaser, needless to say, with all of his hits. He didn’t talk much, though.”

And when it came to the business of making music, he didn’t really have to. There was no need for a preplanned set list; he’d just announce each song from the stage, and the band would follow right along. Grabowske said, “He liked it that he didn’t have to say ‘in the key of…’”

He talked even less on that particular Friday night at the Skyline.
“You could tell he wasn’t feeling well — very, very shaky on the stage,” says Grabowske. “The first [set], he made it all right. He tried to make the second stage appearance, but he was shaking too bad. And, of course, we all felt sorry for him, but then, evidently, Warren saw what was happening and came and got him.”

Hank had only gotten several songs into that second set.

So, what did club owner Warren Stark do with Hank Williams? At this point, Grabowske unknowingly adds a new twist to the fabled story of Hank’s troubled life. “Warren Stark had to leave to call the ambulance.”

Wait. An ambulance? In Austin?

According to Tommy and Goldie Hill, Hank had likely suffered a heart attack in Houston or Victoria a few days earlier, prior to the scheduled Victoria show that didn’t happen, and even that fact was not medically confirmed. But, nowhere is that last true concert performance recorded as ending with such sad drama.

When I tell Grabowske that this is a fact not noted in the biographies, he is puzzled. I ask him why this didn’t get out and how the crowd responded to the fact that their musical hero was taken away in an ambulance. “Nobody was aware of it.”

And there it is. Apparently, the house band kept playing, the dancers kept dancing, the bar kept serving, and Hank Williams was quietly slipped out the back door (Grabowske draws me a map of how and where), taken away to Brackenridge Hospital in downtown Austin.
Stark’s sister Margaret remembers that night (“Oh, yeah, I wrote the check!”), but working the front door prevented her seeing Hank’s disposition on stage or early departure. She doesn’t remember her brother speaking of an ambulance.

I called Brackenridge, but modern privacy laws apply to medical records, even those from 1952.

Austin musician Bobby Earl Smith, who played at the Skyline in the ‘70s as a member of Freda and the Firedogs, without knowing of the alleged trip to the hospital, told me that Warren Stark had told him several times of Hank Williams’ Cadillac being left behind at the Skyline after that night.

It stayed there for some time, which provides a little more credence to the possible notion that Hank left that night on a stretcher without his car.

Smith also remembered a time when hanging out at the club with the late Texas musician Doug Sahm that Warren Stark told them he would never book a “long-hair band” in this club. “Doug said, ‘Oh really?’ and pointed to a picture of himself on the wall with Hank Williams. He said, ‘I played your club.’”

That was true. The long-haired, hippie, redneck, renaissance Texan and musical tornado Sir Douglas Sahm had sat upon the lap of Hank Williams that night at the Skyline. He was an 11-year-old musical prodigy from San Antonio.

Grabowske, who would later give steel guitar lessons to Doug Sahm, doesn’t remember Sahm being there that night, but Doug’s son, Shawn, heard the whole story from his best friend, his father.

“I asked him, ‘Pop, what do you remember about that day that you met Hank Williams?’ I remember him telling me he remembered Hank picking him up like you do a kid and set him on his lap, and his knees were really bony and digging into his little butt. He remembered his breath smelled like whiskey. He said he played some licks on the steel or something and [Hank] said, ‘Keep playin’ that steel, boy.’”

The bony knees seem somewhat inconsistent with the story that Hank had actually added about 30 pounds to his wiry frame in the previous few months, a by-product of Marshall’s questionable medical practices (though Billie Jean attributed it to regular meals at his mama’s house). Haynes remembers that “he looked pretty normal. He looked better than any picture I’d ever seen of him.”

Sahm’s story was told many times when he passed away in 1999, but it appears in some of the Williams biographies as actually happening several months earlier in Sahm’s own home town of San Antonio.
The younger Sahm, however, is confident of its veracity. “I know it definitely happened, and I know it definitely happened in Austin. The difference is that unlike other people hearing that it happened, I heard it from my dad.”

THEN CAME THAT FATEFUL DAY

So what really happened at the Skyline? Did Hank stand or sit? Was he still dramatically underweight or had he packed on 30 pounds?

Did he play three hours or two painfully short sets? Was he sober, or was he hammered with whiskey? Did another future legendary musical figure sit on his lap that night? Did he depart in an Austin ambulance? Did he leave his car behind? Did he have a heart attack in Austin? In Victoria? In Houston? Was there more than one? Does it matter?

What would Hank say about these questions? Probably something like, “Well, if you mind your own business, then you won’t be mindin’ mine.”

The only true certainty is that Hank Williams never played a dance-hall gig for his adoring public again, the plain folks whose hearts were pierced by his two-minute doses of pure, raw human emotion. He did, however, get up in front of people one more time, but it was a very different occasion. On Dec. 28, he played for 130 members and guests of Montgomery, Ala.’s American Federation of Musicians at their annual party.

Hank got up from his steak dinner and performed a set of songs for his industry peers. Billie Jean was with him, and he sang several of his most Audrey-inspired pieces, including “Cold, Cold Heart” and “You Win Again.”

He might have played his latest radio hit, a darkly humorous and prophetic tune called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to a New Year’s gig in Canton, Ohio, where he would have had that lunch with Ray Price.

When he’d made the date with Price some weeks earlier, he’d done so with optimism about his future with his new wife, intended sobriety, and a return to the Grand Ol’ Opry. Instead, he died a very old man at the age of 29, his body and spirit badly ravaged by alcohol, prescription drugs, a debilitating spinal disorder and a severe case of a feeling called the blues.

The body gave out in the final hours of the most tumultuous year of his short life, and even that is still in dispute. Despite exhaustive research by all the authors who’ve told Hank’s story, it’s still unclear if he died in 1952 or the earliest moments of 1953.

Among the places at which he might have slipped away was a stop that his two drivers had made for gas and coffee in Oak Hill, W.V. Hank lay still in the backseat while they went into the place. It was called the Skyline Drive-in.

The official cause of death, which was declared at Oak Hill Hospital, has also been reported several ways, both accurate, with the death certificate saying that the cause of death was “acute rt. ventricular dilation” and a later coroner’s jury declaring that he “died of a severe heart condition and hemorrhage.”

It’s not a stretch to translate either medical declaration into layman’s terms as death from a broken heart. An incomplete Hank Williams lyric found there in the back seat of the car seems to back it up:

We met we lived
And dear we loved
Then came that fatal day
The love that
Felt so dear fades far
Away
To night we both
Are all alone and here’s
All that I can say
I love you still and
Always will
But that’s the price
We have to pay

None of this was reported in the town that hosted his last concert. The Austin Statesman buried a one-sentence article on page nine of its Jan. 2, 1953, edition: “HILLBILLY SINGER DIES Oak Hill, W. Va. — Hank Williams, 29, hillbilly singer and composer, who wrote the current hit ‘Jambalaya,’ died Thursday.”

The death of Hank Williams seemed to signify a cultural shift, and it can be argued that it played a role in the creation of rock and roll, which he completely missed.

Country songs now had a more universal melodic hook, thanks to Hank, and his unique brand of country was rooted in the rhythm and blues that his mentor, Tee Tot, had shared with him as a child. Nobody disputes the influence of Tee Tot, but opinions regarding his music’s impact vary widely, and there are plenty of country music purists who don’t appreciate the fact that he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And read into this what you will, but the icon of country music didn’t die with his cowboy boots on. He was wearing blue suede shoes.

Just a few years after Hank’s passing, the Skyline would host another “Louisiana Hayride” performer, a kid named Elvis Presley, rendering the Skyline a metaphor for our changing American musical culture.

The surreal connection between Billie Jean and that Austin dance hall was more curse than coincidence, as her next husband would also be another of country music’s brightest stars, and he, too, would leave her a widow. Johnny Horton had been a friend of Hank’s and was best known for the classic hit “Battle of New Orleans.” Immediately after a 1960 performance at the Skyline Club, Horton perished in a car crash.
No Hank Williams movie has been made since “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Many books have been written, and there are probably more songs about Hank Williams than there are songs by him. But, that is where the real story is, in his songs.

Hank Williams the man was hard to know. He was detached, superficially friendly, or drunk in his all-too-brief life, but everything he ever felt was clear and spiritually honest in the songs and performances that he committed to tape. Within those recordings lies the certain and indisputable truth of Hank Williams.

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