A Ramblin’ Man’s Permanent Purgatory

It was on December 30, 1952, that a 29-year-old musician prepared to leave Montgomery, Alabama, for two shows in West Virginia and Ohio. A winter storm canceled his plans to fly, so he hired a 17-year-old driver to take him on his way. The musician was in no condition to travel long distances in cold, chilly, rainy weather, but no one – including himself – thought that at the time. Some legends say he left less for the thrill of the potential shows and more just to get away from whatever demons haunted him in Montgomery, be they physical, spiritual, or otherwise. Or maybe not. At this point in his career and life, he couldn’t afford any further bad publicity than he had already garnered, and Nashville wasn’t ever really sure what to do with him. The show, then, went on … as long as it could.

On his last day in Montgomery, December 29, he stopped at a church to pray, and told his wife he wouldn’t spend another Christmas with her, because he was closer to the Lord than he’d ever been in his life. His wife recalled him tossing and turning later that night, where he eventually stood up and started punching invisible targets. When asked why he did this, he replied that he saw Jesus coming down the road, and that he was coming after him.

Despite the supposed revelation, at 11:30 a.m. the next day, the musician climbed into the backseat of his ‘52 Cadillac convertible, scarred once again by a chronic back pain that was but one ailment among many for him. On the way to their destination, the driver stopped so that the musician could get a shot of morphine from a chain of bogus doctor friends to ease the pain. Two more stops remained. The first was at a gas station to change a tire, and the person who changed it couldn’t quite grasp the magnitude of his famed encounter in the moment – but he would, all in due time. The next stop was for food, and afterwards, both the musician and the driver started back on their journey at around 5:00 p.m., shrouded in darkness in more ways than one.

The two, having had a late start, decided to stay the night in Birmingham, where the musician raised a ruckus in his usual manner but, nevertheless, was ready and willing to travel early the next morning. They stopped in Fort Payne, where the musician bought a bottle of bourbon, and made it to Chattanooga by lunchtime and ate in a diner. It was there where the musician dropped a dime in the jukebox to hear Tony Bennett sing a cover of one of his own songs, “Cold, Cold Heart,” and then left a $50 bill for the waitress who served him.

They arrived in Knoxville by 1 p.m., and, after having no luck before, they found available flights for Charleston, where the musician allowed his now unneeded driver to travel with him. Before departing for the flight, the musician found his way to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he was able to have another doctor administer another morphine shot, in mysterious circumstances the driver never explained. It’s the first mystery among many for what will eventually lead to an unfortunate end, and it won’t be the last one.

The two shows in Charleston were canceled due to the weather, as was the flight, and the two travelers were now stuck back in Knoxville, the musician unable to stand from his bourbon-fueled binge. They checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel, where two porters carried the musician to his room. One of them would recall that he was very much alive at that point, saying to them both that, “When you drink like this, this is the price you gotta pay.” From there, the driver called the musician’s wife, the musician’s wife called a bogus doctor that had been fueling her husband’s destructive tendencies, and the bogus doctor called a friend, who injected the musician with two more morphine shots along with vitamin B-12. He informed the driver to get back on the road to Canton for the next shows, rather than stay at the hotel … and also to keep the musician away from alcohol.

And from there, what has thus far been a true story dissolves into mysteries and rumors, many of which have carried a lot of evidence throughout the decades, but also a lot of doubt, too. The police reports and accounts of the driver remained as unclear as the mysteries that surrounded the musician in his life … and continue to surround his legacy. From what is known, the driver nearly collided head-on with a highway patrol car somewhere near Blaine. After everyone pulled over, the two cops noticed a lifeless-looking man slumped across the backseat, yet reportedly never checked on him themselves, after the driver reported that the musician was just sleeping.

In Bristol, the driver stopped for gas and a sandwich and said he spoke to the musician briefly. Some reports state that in Bluefield, West Virginia, the two picked up a relief driver, who drove only for a short time before the regular one took back over. Some reports say the relief driver was dropped off in Princeton, West Virginia, just north of Bluefield, and some say the musician received more morphine at a sanatorium there, but the regular driver later denied this. All that’s truly known is, somewhere between the mountain roads between Bristol, Tennessee, and Oak Hill, West Virginia, in the early hours of Jan. 1, 1953, the musician scheduled to play at Canton Memorial Auditorium later that night died in the backseat of his car. He was only 29 years old. He was a hillbilly singer who died a rock star’s death before the term “rock ‘n’ roll” had even been coined, and his name was Hank Williams.

Hank williams
Hank Williams. Credit: Everett/REX Shutterstock

How to find him today presents another duality. One can simply listen to his songs and hear the pain and torture that defined the bulk of his recordings, or visit his grave at Oakwood Cemetery Annex in Montgomery, which is an upright slab nearly twice the size of a human. It’s a symbol of how the legend has endured, and how though his words speak for themselves, he’s a legend because, like all legends, we, the fans, won’t let him have the last word. We speak for the departed ones that have touched our lives, and in doing so inadvertently recreate their stories in images that serve our own individualistic purposes. They write our lives, and we write theirs.

As such, assessing whether Hank Williams was a sinner, a saint, both, or neither, is the ultimate mystery that surrounds his life and legacy. On that same grave in Montgomery, one will find a poem dedicated to him by his widow, Audrey Williams (“Thank you for all the love you gave me / There could be one no stronger,” it begins) … only, she wasn’t actually his widow, and a poem filled with nothing but kind words and remembrances seems to neglect the drinking problem and career pressures that surrounded Hank and contributed to the Williams’ marital problems and eventual divorce.

It’s a paradox that shrouds over Williams’ own relationship with Nashville itself. He was, at one point, between 1950-51, one of the city’s biggest artists and most successful touring acts. By the time he died, he had notched seven No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country-and-western chart and sold eleven million records, all within his six years as a recording artist. But with continued success came greater pressure from the industry, as well as a greater reliance on alcohol. Crippling spinal pain multiplied his binges through 1951, and an unsuccessful spinal operation in December led to a dependence on painkillers. He disbanded his group, and by 1952 had seemed to care even less and less about his career. His appearances at shows diminished, and by June he had stopped working altogether. In August the Grand Ole Opry, at one time its invitation of membership a mere dream goal for Williams, fired him for missing show dates. And his addiction worsened through medication prescribed by a bogus doctor, Toby Marshall. His hits remained strong, but every event described thus far contributed to the eventual “last ride” already detailed.

Regardless, he was looked upon as a saint following his death. The year he died, every major recording studio in Nashville released a tribute song to him, 16 in all – and that’s not counting the countless ones that have come since. Even these songs, however, seem to tell different accounts of the same story. The first song, Jack Cardwell’s “Death of Hank Williams,” written the night he heard of Williams’ death, was a No. 2 hit, kept out of the top spot by … well, Williams’ own “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Like most tributes to Williams that followed, this was written by a close friend who eschewed the darker details of his life in favor of a more peaceful resolution – that Williams was now merely laid to rest and ready to embrace his reward of the afterlife, in Heaven. With the Virginia Rounders’ “Hank Williams Meets Jimmie Rodgers,” we’re left to assume the two have formed their own heavenly band. A life of torture and a brutal final night was framed in other songs as a glorious calling on high.

Williams’ own son, Hank Williams Jr., arguably put it best, when he said, “In January of 1953, my father stopped being a man and became a legend.” And, later, in his 1979 autobiography, “While [Daddy] was alive, he was despised and envied; after he died, he was some kind of saint. And that’s exactly how Nashville decided to treat Daddy – country music’s first authentic saint.”

Jr. would know. After all, the man who was born Randall Hank Williams was coached by his mother, Audrey Williams, into being a glorified replica of his father early on in his own career. Audrey herself had recorded a few of her own tributes to her ex-husband and billed herself as “The One and Only Audrey (Mrs. Hank) Williams,” once again eschewing a darker history that included two divorces from the same man as well as long, bitter separations. Like us, she was forging an image for her husband that overtook the frail, moody man who spawned it. Jr.’s own first chart success came from covering his own father’s songs. His own material always stalled until, ironically enough, he released “Standin’ in the Shadows,” an eventual top ten hit in which he communicates to a disappointed audience that he’s doing the best he can to honor his father, but that it’s hard to stand in the shadow of a “very great man.”

Hank Williams Jr.
Hank Williams Jr. in his earliest years as a performer. From mykindofcountry.wordpress.com.

Ultimately, it was all to feed Nashville’s image of the late Williams. Jr., in his autobiography, noted that “Essentially, what was happening [in the late 1960s] was that one myth of Hank Williams was getting ready to overtake the other … Opry folks were still praising Daddy’s name … [a group of] young singers and songwriters had adopted a live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse picture, and they talked about the way that Hank did it … the years all run together – ‘71, ‘72, ‘73, ‘74. An endless nightmare of bars and shows, of sick mornings and stoned nights and big chunks of time where there are no memories. Of Jim Beam and cheery, multicolored pills, and strange girls with vacant eyes … people were starting to come to my shows to see if I would fall off stage. For a measly five bucks you could step right up and see whether the son of the greatest country artist of all time could get through his set without dropping a guitar or forgetting the words to ‘Cold, Cold Heart.’ ”

It was during this dark and foggy time for him that he confronted the myths about his own father and tried to contest them, at least in part, like 1973’s “Hank” or “Stoned at the Jukebox,” noted as him coming to terms with his own father’s legacy. The chosen soldier sent by his own mother and the Nashville establishment to carry on a legacy presented for his father chose to become the Hank Williams people talked about rather than sang about, especially prior to 1953. And yet, with it came a new image of the senior Williams that dominated a mindset throughout the ‘70s – one of him as an outlaw who Nashville abandoned and was never really understood anyway (from “The Conversation,” a duet with outlaw pioneer Waylon Jennings, “Back then they called him crazy, nowadays hey call him a saint / Now the ones that called him crazy then are still ridin’ on his name”).

Whether Jr.’s own interpretation of his father’s legacy is one that should be set in stone is another mystery that can’t quite be answered here. But if the 1970s saw the Hank Williams Sr. image revised into what his fans and own son thought of him rather than what Nashville or his ex-wife did or pretended to, the next step, naturally, came in how to immortalize it. Even decades after his passing, tributes presented to Williams remained steady, but the two most notable ones that came didn’t see him as a saint or sinner – just a lonely, tortured ghost. The first one, David Allan Coe’s “The Ride” (released in 1983), doesn’t portray a Williams who found heavenly salvation at all. Rather, he’s a tormented ghost hanging around I-65, with Coe playing the role of the young, budding star making the same trek to Nashville Williams did before.

His words and advice for the aspiring musician are both bitter and truthful, the refrain boasting that “if you’re big star bound, let me tell you it’s a long hard ride.” And yet, it’s the ghost that seems spooked by the song’s end. He refuses to ride into Nashville because he has to get back to Alabama. He cries, perhaps as a metaphor for a lack of acceptance, or perhaps because he never made it home. And he’ll begin that journey again when the next passenger rolls around with dreams of telling their own stories in Nashville.

Likewise, he’s stuck in this weird sort of purgatory on Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery,” released in 1992. Here, Jackson plays the role of the already established star, on his way to Mobile for a show … on New Year’s Eve. He stops to “see a friend outside of town,” and pays his respect to a legend who no doubt influenced his art in some fashion. There, of course, he meets Williams’ ghost, who has not much to offer other than thanks for remembering him and even caring about him at all. He’s not in Heaven like he was on those ‘50s tributes, nor is he riding around (at least in spirit) with the outlaws or even his own son in the ‘70s. He’s “always singing there,” in Montgomery. He’s got friends and visitors for a moment, but he’s always alone.

How, then, do we view Hank Williams’ legacy within country music? Especially when he himself seemed to have died without figuring out where he belonged? Chet Flippo once argued, in Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams, that those who knew Williams “revised his history to sweeten their own,” and perhaps we’re guilty of the same. It’s a constant duality of recklessness and eventual maturity that keeps us conforming and mutating the Williams we want to know inside of our hearts and minds in order to reflect him in our preferred image. And whether the duality is Nashville versus Montgomery, or sinner versus saint, or immortal versus mortal, or establishment versus artistic value – or whether there is no duality at all, and Williams is just caught in the purgatory of “The Ride” and “Midnight in Montgomery” until either he finds clarity or we find it for him – the only thing we can say about how to properly define Williams’ legacy is … oh, forget it. You’ve already decided for yourself anyway.

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