The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
Consider this an overdue addendum to the last volume of this series, given how Hawkshaw Hawkins will forever be associated not only with Patsy Cline, but Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes, too.
By now, Hawkins’ name is largely forgotten outside of that tragic incident; in part because superstardom always seemed out of his grasp, and also because his career only gained momentum shortly before his death. At over six feet tall, the deep-voiced Hawkins was often billed as “eleven and a half yards of personality.”
Born Harold Franklin Hawkins, his music career began as a youth when he traded five trapped rabbits for his first guitar. Like most uprising country stars during this time, Hawkins paid his dues when he was young, winning a talent contest at age 15 on radio station WSAZ in Huntington, West Virginia, where he later earned his first job as a disc jockey. Before serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Hawkins’ resume was quite eclectic: along with his radio gig, he worked in a traveling show for a Lawrence, Massachusetts, radio station and in a Baltimore shipyard. After the war, he became a member of the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, and had a program on CBS radio.
It’s up for debate, of course, but it seems that – at least for achieving stardom and widespread appeal – Hawkins emerged at the wrong place and time. For one, he jumped back and forth between three different record labels (King, RCA Victor and Columbia) during his 15 years as a recording artist. And as country music demanded more “flash” in the ‘50s as it worked to stave off the rock ‘n’ roll crisis, Hawkins’ smooth honky-tonk style was more suited for the decade before. He recorded his first singles, “Pan American” and “Doghouse Boogie” for King Records in 1948, with both making the top 10 on the Billboard country chart. His success over the next decade was less consistent, though he did benefit from the peculiar 1959 “saga song” trend, in which his “Soldier’s Joy” – a pseudo-Revolutionary war song set to a traditional fiddle melody – reached the top 15 of the charts. On the strength of his successes, Hawkins joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955.
Perhaps his real achievement, however, was when he married fellow Opry star Jean Shepard in 1960. He returned to King in 1962, where he would score his first and only No. 1 hit. In February 1963, Hawkins was excited to release a new single, a swinging heartbreak song called “Lonesome 7-7203,” written by Ernest Tubb’s son, Justin. Like Jimmie Rodgers was for him, Ernest was the main musical influence for several young country artists at this time, including Hawkins; so call it a semi-full circle moment, if you will. Hawkins’ excitement for the song was second only to finding out that Shepard was pregnant with their second child.
Eager to promote his new record, Hawkins would have to wait when, in an unfortunate turn of events, a popular disc jockey in Kansas City named “Cactus” Jack Call had been killed in an automobile accident. A local promoter was working on putting together a benefit concert for Call’s family, seeing as he had no insurance. Hawkins was one of the first to volunteer for the show. Before he left, he told Shepard, “I hope this one’s a boy, too,” and hand-delivered a copy of his new single to the WSM studio, telling them to “play the hell out of it.”
The benefit show, held in Kansas City’s Memorial Building on Sunday, March 3, included, alongside Hawkins, Dottie West, Billy Walker, George Jones, Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. Cline wasn’t feeling well, but it was there she debuted new songs “Sweet Dreams” and “Faded Love.” The concert was a success, raising $3,000 for Call’s family.
When Walker learned overnight his father had suffered a heart attack, however, Hawkins gave him his commercial airline ticket and said he’d fly back to Nashville later with Cline and Copas on Randy Hughes’ small plane. Ironically, Hawkins feared flying and seldom traveled by air, but just as he was one of the first to volunteer for the benefit concert, Hawkins, at least in Shepard’s words, was a man who lived by the philosophy, “if you had a friend in need, you went and helped fill that need.”
Unfortunately, Hughes encountered bad weather on the afternoon of March 5, flying into dense rain clouds as darkness fell west of Nashville. The plane crashed in the hills near Camden, Tennessee, killing all aboard. A search team went to investigate the site, where they found a hairbrush, a gold slipper, Cline’s cigarette lighter, Hawkins’ leather belt, one of his cowboy boots, and the broken neck of his guitar.
It’s a shame – 1963 was an otherwise good year for country music: the popular television comedy The Beverly Hillbillies gave “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett” the needed exposure to become a No. 1 country hit, giving bluegrass group Flatt and Scruggs a rare victory in mainstream country music. And Bobby Bare began his career that year with “Detroit City,” which effectively expressed the loneliness felt by southerners in the industrial northern United States. But the world was also robbed of Patsy Cline’s unmatched vocal prowess far too soon, and Hawkins would never live to see “Lonesome 7-7203” hit the top of the charts.