DAMNED COLD. An ice storm over Nashville has closed down flights across the state of Tennessee.
Driving is just as treacherous, but despite the weather a startling 1952 powder-blue Cadillac convertible hurries on through the night along a rising, twisting road marred by patches of ice, fog and flurries of snow.
A teenager looks into the rear-vision mirror as oncoming headlights flare into the vehicle to reveal a figure on the back seat, sedated and asleep at last. There is a blanket over the dozing man, one arm across his chest holding it in place. A white Stetson cowboy hat sits beside him.
Charles Carr, the 17-year-old driver, and his 29-year-old passenger, country music phenomenon Hank Williams, had started their journey well, just two young men on the road and having fun as they got to know each other. Sure, Williams had taken the usual hit of morphine from his doctor to ease any back pain that might worry him over the journey ahead. But he was otherwise sober and ready to sing his heart out.
The pair left their home town of Montgomery, Tennessee on December 29, 1952, for a trek of several hundred kilometres across three states. Carr was ferrying Williams towards two big shows booked for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 1953. They were getting on so well the boy even dared to tease Williams about his latest song, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), saying he could not understand what the singer was going on about.
Named after a Creole dish, the song involved unusually abstract lyrics from Williams that suggested a Louisiana wedding feast and, perhaps, the groom relishing the consummation of his marriage. Heightened and blurred by Williams’s colloquial mix of Cajun French and English, and his vowel-bending singing style, Jambalaya conveyed a good-natured, sensual joy rarely heard on radio outside of blues music stations.
Despite his claims of confusion, Carr must have grasped the innuendos behind the song. He reports they both laughed when Williams called him “a son-of-bitch” for criticising it, further declaring the teenage boy’s French to be just as good as his ever was.
In a recording career of only six years, running from 1947 until the end of 1952 — a year of which was mostly scuttled by the musicians’ union strike of 1948 — Williams notches up 30 hit singles in a row. Another five songs of his will be released posthumously. All 35 singles register in the Top 10 of the Billboard country & western best sellers chart. Eleven go straight to the No 1 spot, including instant classics Cold, Cold Heart, Hey, Good Lookin’, and, as of this New Year’s Eve, Jambalaya.
In 1951 crooner Tony Bennett had turned Cold, Cold Heart into an even bigger international pop success, backed by a lavish string arrangement from Percy Faith. Soporific and overdone, Bennett’s version nonetheless thrills Williams. “This is a song that has kept us in a lot of beans and biscuits,” he says when he introduces it in his own show.
Williams himself is considered too primitive for the mainstream, but the figure who will become known as “the hillbilly Shakespeare” is still the artist of choice on Wurlitzer jukeboxes across the nation. If you’re drinking in a bar, or live anywhere in the American south, Williams is the king.
Any wildness or bleakness that makes it difficult for the industry to digest him only feeds into a catalogue of great songs that more conventionally smooth pop singers can re-interpret for mass consumption. Bennett wants more; Bing Crosby is sniffing around. An earlier Williams hit, 1948′s rollicking Move It On Over, will later provide the musical template for Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock in 1954, opening the door for rock ‘n’ roll. It will not be until the likes of Bob Dylan in the early 60s that a white crossover artist of Williams’s songwriting calibre and revolutionary influence emerges again.
He should be in an untouchable situation as he heads across the Appalachian Mountains, as luminous as the white Nudie cowboy suits he wears on stage with their embossed blue musical notes strewn across him. Instead, Williams has been sacked from the Grand Ole Opry, the live Saturday evening WSM-AM radio broadcast that goes out from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to the entire nation. Though integral to the Grand Ole Opry’s popularity, Williams’s boozing has made him insufferable. The impression is Williams is glad to escape the “family values” the program imposes on his image and behaviour.
Unfortunately, producer and mentor Fred Rose has also told Williams he can’t work with him any more after the pair recorded Your Cheatin’ Heart the past August. The rift with a father figure such as Rose is a much deeper wound. Williams’s regular band, the Drifting Cowboys, have just about had their fill too, and these days prefer to tour with his more amenable drinking buddy and imitator, singer Ray Price. A reputation for unreliability sees Williams scrabbling to book shows on a club circuit that should be desperate to have a radio and recording star of his magnitude.
This past year he has also reluctantly divorced his wife, sometime manager and greatest muse, Audrey Sheppard, for the second and final time, swearing if she cut him loose him he’d be dead within a year.
He then marries 18-year-old Billy Jean Jones Eshlimar, memorably described as the type of girl who causes a car wreck every time she walks down the street. Williams reputedly steals her away from fellow country artist Faron Young by waving a gun at his head and letting him know the gal is now his.
Between his divorce from Audrey and his marriage to Billy Jean just a few months after meeting her in 1952 — a marriage performed three times, twice in public for paying audiences at shows in New Orleans (done, it is said, to repeatedly spite Audrey) — Williams has managed to get another lover, Bobbie Jett, pregnant.
If that weren’t enough, he has fallen deeper into a ferocious dependency on chloral hydrate and morphine prescribed to alleviate lifelong back problems that have reached an excruciating pitch after a botched spinal fusion operation the previous Christmas, 1951. A rumoured loss of control over one of his legs, incurred by the back operation, sometimes causes Williams to fall on stage, only worsening the nonetheless accurate impression of him drinking and pill popping to grand excess.
Nicknamed “Bones”, Williams has always been a lean 1.88m tall, prone to hunch over a microphone and mesmerise an audience with his black stare. But lately people say it is as if his face is being sucked inwards. The dark spark in his eyes is going, leaving only a weepy glaze from drinking. He weighs in at just under 60kg, lives on a diet of eggs and tomato sauce when he eats at all. There are tales of his gaunt figure staggering across the stage gobbling a fistful of chloral hydrate tablets to kill the pain. Those who see him in this final year variously speak of his shows as either a tragic shambles or the best he has ever sung.
The word haunted springs to mind to describe Williams, but it is too romantic. He is more frightening than that. A few days before his last car journey he wakes from a nightmare and jumps up, frenziedly shadowboxing around the bedroom. Billy Jean calms him down and asks what is the matter? He tells her he saw Jesus coming down the road to take his soul away.
While Williams and his young driver are joking in their sky-coloured Cadillac about the meaning behind Jambalaya, the fast-moving singer knows he has another song being pressed for delivery into the stores. It too will hit the No 1 spot the moment it is announced he has come to the end of his journey. Its title has Williams’s fatal, frog-like smile underlining every word: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
THE LOST NOTEBOOKS of Hank Williams is an album of new Williams songs put together under the direction of Bob Dylan. It features artists such as Jack White, Lucinda Williams (no relation), Levon Helm, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow and Merle Haggard, along with Dylan himself, completing lyrics and ideas left behind by Williams in a set of four notebooks, one of which was with him on the night he died. The content has been speculated on for some time, a Turin shroud of sorts within the country music fraternity. There’s certainly no doubting the devotional intensity behind the project now.
In his memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan wrote of being a young man when the sound of Williams’s voice “went through me like an electric rod”. It is hard to capture that specific jolt, but country singer Rodney Crowell articulates the right spirit for the Notebooks project when he explains how Williams “provided something that was a really big part of my family and the culture from whence I came, which was Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning redemption — that’s what Hank Williams’s music always sounded like to me.” Within days of the release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, Time-Life will put out a 3-CD box set, Hank Williams: The Legend Begins, featuring rare radio material known as “the Health and Happiness recordings”.
These are big steps in a renaissance of the singer’s life and work, sparked by a long-running exhibition at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame entitled Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy. Beginning in March 2008 the exhibition has become the most popular in its history and will not close until December 31. In addition, a film entitled The Last Ride in the USA is making appearances on the festival circuit. While it does not name Williams, or feature any of his music, it is clearly based on Carr’s account of their last journey together.
Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Steve Earle released a debut novel inspired by Williams. Titled I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, it imagines the life of the shonky doctor who regularly shot up the country singer with morphine, prescribing chloral hydrate tablets as a cure for his alcoholism, pain and sleeping problems. In Earle’s novel, Williams’s one-time doctor has become a heroin addict haunted by the singer’s ghost.
There are other convergences that are simply the by-product of a great songwriter’s material never going out of fashion. In Australia, Kasey Chambers has just recorded a cover of the Williams classic I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry for her Storybook album. On it she duets with Paul Kelly, who plays guitar. She says they did the song in one take, with one microphone, live, “no layering, just the way we thought Hank would have done it and liked it”.
“It is my most favourite country song ever,” she says. “It’s totally heartbreaking but you don’t want to stop listening to it. Oh God, it just makes you want to crawl into a hole,” she says with a laugh. “It has that combination of making you feel good and bad at the same time, which is what all great country music does.”
Kelly says, “Hank Williams songs were some of the first songs I learned. Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hey Good Lookin’, Rambling Man, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Lovesick Blues still floors me. The music is so rambunctious in contrast to the lovelorn lyrics. Hank was on to something there.
“Many people have covered I’m So Lonesome and every cover I’ve heard is slower than the original. The lyrics are so desolate singers want to wallow in the emotion. Hank’s version is lonesome all right, but listen to the bounce in the music. There’s a perk in it. He always had that, even at his saddest. A good lesson for songwriters.”
On the Lost Notebooks recording, Holly Williams, Hank’s granddaughter, nonetheless delivers a plaintive ballad called Blue is My Heart. Bone simple, it circles around the words “blue is my heart, blue as the sky”. She says this simplicity is the hardest thing to recapture and transform into something great. In many ways Blue is My Heart is her attempt, she admits, “to get to know him”. With backing vocals from Hank Williams Jr, the son of Hank and Holly’s father, it’s possible to hear the ruptured intimacy of three generations in a matter of a few lines.
RAISED POOR in Montgomery, Alabama, Williams had a childhood clouded by his father’s nervous breakdown after injuries sustained in World War I, leading to his early departure from the family. To make ends meet Williams’s dominating mother ran boarding houses that some claimed were really bordellos. Her life motto was “take no crap”, and Williams would tell band members “there ain’t no one I’d rather have backing me in a fight than my mother with a broken bottle in her hand”.
Helping to support his family by selling newspapers and peanuts, Williams learned the knack of selling a song too, inducted into the trade by a black street musician named Rufus Payne. Williams would badger him for lessons in blues songs. Payne tended to play hillbilly music on the street because it made him more money. It’s often said country music is just the white man’s blues anyway. It was always a mongrel experience to survive, and every musician knew it. Years later Williams would have a smash hit with a traditional song Payne taught, My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.
Payne was known around town as “Tee-Tot”, a pun on teetotaller. Williams may have tried alcohol with him, and he was certainly drinking moonshine liquor with his cousins by the time was 11, getting so drunk, the locals joke, they’d lay down on the earth and fall off it. It’s now well-established Williams suffered from an undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a congenital disorder of the vertebrae. A look into his teenage notebooks reveals one of his first original songs was titled Back Pain Blues.
By the time Williams was 14 he was winning talent contests, appearing on local radio and putting a band together. He’d soon be touring a honky tonk circuit known as the blood bucket. As a matter of routine Williams kitted his band out with blackjacks for defence, preferring the use of his steel guitar as an argument settler when under threat.
It was in this kind of environment Williams’s songs had to work. And yet their emotional vulnerability is exceedingly unusual for men of that era to express, one reason why his songs were equally as popular with women.
With the looks of a movie-star blonde, Sheppard would hardly be the first female to find Williams charming, but it’s fair to say she was by far the most important, however stormy their marriage proved to be. It was for her most of his lovelorn songs were written.
There’s a saying that when it comes to life in the American south, “William Faulkner wrote it, Hank Williams sang it”. Williams was barely literate, of course, his favoured reading being comic books and romance magazines to fuel song-writing ideas.
Most of the Memphis Sun Studio artists who would lay down the foundations for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s were raw Southern boys just like him — Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. Not for nothing is the wall of Vince Everett’s cell in Presley’s 1957 film Jailhouse Rock decorated with a photo of Williams.
But by then the traditional country music Williams had once represented was being swept away by the new musical tide, while a refined and orchestrated Nashville sound was evolving to secure whatever parts of the popular market were left.
WILLIAMS’ UNEXPECTED DEATH from what an autopsy declared as “insufficiency of the right ventricle to the heart” (prosaically, a broken heart) made no mention of drugs. But as his road journey unravelled and bad weather caused Williams to miss his New Year’s Eve show, the singer did begin drinking. At a brief hotel stopover he is reported to have been wracked by coughing fits and hiccupping, and unable to walk.
A doctor called to the scene gave him two shots of vitamin B-12, laced with morphine. He was in such bad shape he had to be taken back to the car in a wheelchair before he and Carr set off again into the night. Whether or not he also took his tablets is not known, but Williams always had a prescription of chloral hydrate on hand to ease the ride.
In the movies of that time chloral hydrate and alcohol were the deadly cocktail used to slip people what was called a Micky. It is essentially the same type of combination cited these days in date-rape cases. One of the drug’s by-products when taken with alcohol is psychosis. That combination with morphine can only be imagined, but back in the 40s and 50s it was a mixture favoured for euthanasing terminally ill patients.
Carr had been driving for almost 19 hours total without sleep when he pulled over for gas in Oak Hill, West Virginia. “He [Williams] had his blue overcoat on and had a blanket over him that had fallen off,” Carr said. “I reached back to put the blanket back over him and I felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm.”
People still take Williams’s last backwoods journey by car as if it were a stations-of-the cross experience, listening to his slyly sexy hillbilly music and lovesick blues as they ride along. It can be a spooky business. As Carr has recalled, “It’s a tough drive, I can promise you that.”
On New Year’s Eve, 1952, before or after midnight, no one knows, Williams scratched away in his thin, spidery hand on a piece of paper, then closed his eyes. The outline of a song slipped from his hand and came to rest amid a few Falstaff Winter Beer bottles clinking at his feet with every turn the car took as it travelled northwards.
by Mark Mordue
by Mark Mordue