Bio exhumes Hank Williams’ lonesome spirit
by Jeanne McDonald
The trouble was, everybody wanted a piece of him—his promoters, his sponsors, his wife, his mother, the hangers-on, even the public that loved him so much. From the minute 14-year-old Hank Williams sang his first song on radio station WSFA in Montgomery, Ala., he belonged to the people, but the monster that claimed the biggest piece of him was alcohol.
This was in 1937. Like his fans, Hank had known the hopelessness of poverty and the pain of a hardscrabble life. Like them, he had lived in a boxcar, scrambled for money and worked hard since childhood. So when he sang about the times he would “cry and cry and try to sleep,” or when he moaned that he was so lonesome he could cry, people identified with him. “It was as though he had opened our mail, eavesdropped on our dreams, felt our pulses, found the key to our souls,” writes Paul Hemphill in his new book, Lovesick Blues (Viking, $23.95).
Hemphill’s biography provides one of Hank Williams’ most detailed and comprehensive portraits yet. Hemphill grew up listening to country music and Hank Williams while riding with his truck-driver father, who delivered huge spools of cotton twine to tire plants in the South and Northeast. In researching Hank’s life, he talked to dozens of people who had known the singer those 50-some years ago, even the driver who was the last person to see him alive. “Born sickly, half-educated, virtually fatherless, an alcoholic by his teen years, untutored musically, unlucky in love at every turn,” writes Hemphill, “he had somehow emerged as a tortured genius, a raw poet, the ‘hillbilly’ Shakespeare, a Vincent Van Gogh of the Southern outback.”
After learning technique from a black street singer and winning a talent contest at the Empire Theater in Montgomery, Hank was soon appearing on WSFA twice a week. He was paid $15 a week, a near-fortune in the 1930s, but he squandered most of it on whiskey. It was about this time that the electric steel guitar was introduced, an instrument Hemphill calls the “perfect complement to, and a virtual echo of, the tortured voice of Hank Williams.” Finally, at 16, he dropped out of high school and became a full-time musician with his band, The Drifting Cowboys, sometimes pulling in as much as $100 a night. Then came gigs at rough roadside taverns, honky-tonks, barns and roller skating rinks.
But by the end of the ’30s, Hank, not yet 20, was suffering with unbearable back pain, the result of a birth defect in his spine. Whiskey was his medicine of choice, but that, too, was killing him. When his hero, Roy Acuff, came to Montgomery Ala., for a concert, Hank, drunk, dropped in backstage to meet him. “You’ve got a million-dollar voice, son,” Acuff told him, “but a 10-cent brain.”
And then along came Audrey, reputed to have a figure so amazing that it could “melt the wax off a Dixie cup at 50 feet.” She and Hank stepped into a violent and ill-fated marriage, and although Audrey despised Hank’s drinking, she often was the very one who drove him to it, recreating a cycle that mirrored Hank’s relationship with his mother, Lillie. Ironically, chaos fueled his creativity. When he was happy, he couldn’t write a word. By 1950 he was making $92,500 a year, but his health was deteriorating, and Audrey was running around on him.
On Dec. 30, 1953, Hank hired 18-year-old Charles Carr to drive him to performances in West Virginia and Ohio, but by New Year’s Eve, with a fierce winter storm swirling, they still had 580 miles to go to Charleston for a show that night. When they reached Knoxville, they abandoned the idea of driving and caught a plane, but bad weather grounded them, and they booked a room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. By that time, Hank was in such bad shape, two porters had to help him to his room, where Hank suffered convulsions. A doctor administered vitamin B-6 and B-12 and pronounced Hank fit to travel to Ohio (the Charleston show was canceled). So a porter sat Hank in a wheelchair and pushed him to the car, where, Carr insists, Hank crawled into the backseat without help, although others believe that he was actually dead by then. Later, when Carr reached back to adjust Hank’s blanket, Hank was stone cold. He was 29 years old.
Hank couldn’t even die in peace. His ankles had to be broken to fit his 6’, 1” frame, plus boots, into the casket. Hemphill, speculating about Hank’s career, had he lived, writes: “He was too much of a poet for his particular time, and that time had passed. His death while at the top of his game was, as the saying goes, a good career move.”