On 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 real