New Year’s Eve is the big musical party night of the year, with merriment in the mist as tipsy toasters dance the year away in glittery abandon. It’s ironic, then, that the major music event to occur in the hours connecting two years is significant mainly for the songs it prevented. In the quiet back seat darkness of a Cadillac speeding from Knoxville, Tenn., on Dec. 31, 1952, to make a New Year’s Day gig in Canton, Ohio, Hank Williams succumbed to a heart attack brought on by years of hard living. The greatest country songwriter of all time was 29.
Early on that fateful night, 17-year-old Charles Carr, whom Williams had hired to drive him from Montgomery, Ala. received a speeding ticket in Rutledge, Tenn. When the officer saw Williams sprawled across the seat, motionless, he told Carr that his passenger looked dead. But Carr said Williams was just sedated, having received two shots of morphine for nagging back pain earlier in the day.
At about 5 a.m. on Jan. 1, Carr stopped in Oak Hill, W.Va., to get gas and ask for directions, and that’s when he discovered that his human cargo was an even ghostlier shade of white than usual. Somewhere in the night, Williams’ heart had broken for the last time. Police found a pint of vodka, several tablets of the sedative chloral hydrate and a loaded pistol in his pockets. In his hand was a piece of paper containing lyrics he had been working on. The last line read: “I love you still and always will, but that’s the poison we have to pay.”
Just 2 1/2 months earlier, Williams had made a big show out of marrying 19-year-old beauty Billie Jean Jones, with the couple repeating their vows twice for paying audiences. You can be pretty sure, though, that that final song, like so many previously, was written with his ex-wife Audrey Mae Williams in mind. The dominant and ambitious woman who helped push him to stardom divorced him May 29, 1952, after eight years of fighting and making up.
Mostly they fought about Hank’s drinking and, given an ultimatum, he even quit for a while. In fact, he quit dozens of times. But it seemed that every two weeks or so he’d blast off on a bender that often landed him in jail. In his classic 1947 hillbilly rocker “Move It On Over,” he sings “Came in last night about half past 10/ That baby of mine wouldn’t let me in,” but in real life the time Williams came stumbling in would be close to 10 in the morning. He’d go straight from the jailhouse to the doghouse, but it seemed that the more “Miss Audrey” forbade his drinking, the more he wanted a drink.
During the last year of his life, he was drunk almost all the time, mixing painkillers with alcohol and missing gigs. He eventually was fired from the Grand Ole Opry, where he was the most popular performer, because of his repeated no-shows. The man whose best songs were soaked in passion had degenerated to the point where he was regularly wetting the bed in a drunken, drug-addled stupor.
Zelda to his F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nancy to his Sid, Miss Audrey was Williams’ inspiration and accomplice, as well as a constant source of mental torture. Such painful songs as “Alone and Forsaken,” “A Teardrop on a Rose” and “For Me There Is No Place” mirrored their stormy relationship, but Williams’ songs also revealed just how much affection he had for her.
In many ways, Williams personified a dual nature. He craved a family life and loved little Hank Jr ., whom he nicknamed “Bocephus,” yet hespent months at a time on the road, boozing and carousing. He played the Cadillac Cowboy to the hilt every Saturday night, but he also recorded moralistic Sunday -morning songs such as “Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals” under the alias Luke the Drifter. He was a lazy drunk and a prolific songwriter, a consummate craftsman with untamed eyes. His drunken escapades are legendary, but when he didn’t drink, Hank Williams was the most sober man alive.
On “I Can’t Escape From You,” Williams put his drinking in context, singing “A jug of wine to numb my mind/ but what good does it do/ The jug runs dry and I still cry/ I can’t escape from you.” But he didn’t mention the role that his alcoholism played in the breakup. He looked at drinking as a cure for a problem it had created and in the process inspired such later country classics as “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” by Merle Haggard and “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” by George Jones. Williams’ songs laid the blueprint for most of the great country music that followed, and his influence is still strong in such newer artists as Jimmie Dale Gil>more, Wayne Hancock, Marty Brown, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, BR-549 and many more. Hank Williams is to country music what Bob Marley is to reggae — a pioneer who continues to attract new fans for the simple reason that he’s never been topped.
It’s easy to think that the country giant’s demise was such a waste. In a recording career that spanned only six years, Williams had created such standards as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I Saw the Light,” “Hey Good Lookin,”’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” “Kaw-Liga” and more,which are as much a part of our national fabric as the stars and stripes. He was perhaps the greatest American songwriter since Stephen Foster, but like the writer of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh, Susanna,” who died drunk and penniless in 1864, Williams did his best to obliterate all his gifts with drugs and alcohol until he finally succeeded in a big way on New Year’s Eve 44years ago.
But would Williams have been the same songwriter, the same singer, if he wasn’t possessed by the inner turmoil that only death could exorcise? Where did the artist end and the man begin? Was the final tragedy just the wrapping on the complete package?
It was a sorrowful day when they took away the body of the man who could cut through an entire congestion of feelings with just one line, delivered from deep within. Unlike the stodgy performers of the day such as Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and George Morgan, Williams exuded raw energy and a sexual spark. The first time he played the Grand Ole Opry, in June ’49, the audience members leapt from their seats and demanded six encores, which was unheard of in country music.
Where many late-’40s hits were about gunfights and trains, Williamsled the introspective revolution from within, writing about heartbreak and regret and changing country music forever.
The skinny kid, born Hiriam King Williams in Mount Olive, Ala., on Sept. 17, 1923, became famou>s because he was able to set everyday emotions to music, yet after becoming the King of Country Music, he found those simple feelings harder to deal with. After hearing the applause, he had trouble being alone. As soon as the party was over, doubts and fears engulfed him, so his response was to keep the party going. By the end he was drinking not in celebration but for medication. With riches untold, Williams crashed in the back seat, nailing the stark reality, later reinforced by the likes of Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain, that stardom provides no solution to deep-seated personal problems. Sometimes it has the opposite effect.
Perhaps the lyric that best underlines the lonely spiral that ended in the death of Hank Williams is from an obscure tune called “Men With Broken Hearts.” Stumbling off the pedestal and plunging into desolation, he sang:
Some were paupers, some were kings/ And some were masters of the arts/ But in their shame, they’re all the same/ These men with broken hearts