Skip to comments.We Can't Help It (If We're Still in Love With Hank)
Posted on 12/31/2002 10:05:50 AM PST by Revolting cat!
Tonight the cast of the musical "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" in New York's Manhattan Ensemble Theater will offer a memorial toast to the country legend. Half a century ago, at age 29, Williams's heart stopped sometime between New Year's Eve and the next morning in the back seat of a Cadillac taking him to a show in Canton, Ohio. Let's hope the musicians now atop the country charts will also pay tribute to the singer-songwriter who, above all others, paved the way for their success.
If Jimmie Rodgers was the father of commercial country music, then Hank Williams was its absolute monarch and first true superstar. The 129 songs he recorded and the hundreds more he left behind constitute one of the most impressive and influential country-music canons of all time. In a professional recording career spanning just six years, 1947 through 1952, Williams had no fewer than 11 million-selling singles among the nearly 40 that entered the top 10.
His first significant hit, "Move It on Over," came in 1947. With a bold, bracing tempo that anticipates the rockabilly of the 1950s, the song describes a lover's regret over his wayward behavior. The narrator finds himself in the doghouse -- literally -- after his woman "changed the lock on our front door," and Williams's skillful singing and playful wit prevent this domestic drama from slipping into sappiness.
In 1949, Williams's cover of a 1922 Tin Pan Alley standard, "Lovesick Blues," became the huge breakout hit that would define his performance style in the public mind. Topping the country charts for 16 weeks and even making it into the top 25 of the pop charts, this song of simple lyrics ("Lord, I've tried and I've tried/To keep her satisfied/But she just wouldn't stay") was delivered by Williams in a lived-through-it baritone sometimes rising to a falsetto or trailing off into a yodel.
More than any other performer before or since, Williams revealed the real ache in the achy-breaky heart of country singing, and audiences, sensing the pain in the singer as much as in the song, connected with him on an emotional level well beyond the tug of jukebox sentiment.
Most of Hank Williams's inspiration for singing and songwriting was drawn from his own life. Born in Mount Olive West, Ala., he was raised mainly by his mother, Lillie, a steel-willed Baptist who played the organ in church and made sure her son learned hymns and gospel music. From a black street musician named Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, Williams honed his guitar skills and acquired a bluesy style with a stalwart rhythm. And from the singing of country stars Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb he absorbed the one enduring hallmark of his own songs: bedrock sincerity.
As early as age 11, Williams also acquired a taste for alcohol. Binge drinking, coupled with a dependency on painkillers to relieve continual back problems likely brought on by spina bifida, plagued him the rest of his life and, no doubt, shortened it.
He and his first wife, Audrey, had a tempestuous relationship, and it often served as fodder for his lyrics. One of Williams's most popular songs, "Cold, Cold Heart," was composed in November 1950 after a stinging rebuff from Audrey. The anguish of the song, released in early 1951, was almost palpable: "The more I learn to care for you, the more we drift apart/Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?" The song reached No. 1 and remained on the country charts for nearly a year, bolstered by Tony Bennett's No. 1 pop cover that summer. "I'd never heard of Hank Williams before then," Bennett admitted, "though I soon learned that he was the single most important figure in all of country music."
Bennett wasn't the only singer to mine the pop gold buried in Hank Williams's country songs. Vocalists as varied as Perry Como, Fats Domino, Guy Lombardo, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, John Fogerty and Norah Jones have recorded his work. In 2001 "Timeless," a full-album treatment of Williams's music, featured such singers as Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Beck, Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler, and Ryan Adams, who cut a quirky, riveting rendition of "Lovesick Blues."
At a time when country music struggles with schizophrenic pop-vs.-traditional market trends or blandly panders to both (Shania Twain's "Up!"), it's a 50-year tonic to savor again such juke-joint rave-ups, gospel-tinged songs, and bruise-baring ballads of love gone wrong as "Honky Tonkin'," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "I Saw the Light," "Mansion on the Hill," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "You Win Again," and "Your Cheatin' Heart." With music of that enduring honesty and insight, how can you not get a hankering for Hank?
Mr. Hitchner last wrote on Ruben Blades for the Journal.
Updated December 31, 2002
Driver recalls Hank Williams' last ride
By JIM THARPE
Copyright 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Just before sunrise on New Year's Day 50 years ago, a sleek baby-blue Cadillac roared up to the rural Oak Hill, W.Va., hospital in the cold Appalachian darkness. The driver was just 17, exhausted and scared. The passenger was barely 29 and dead.
Hank Williams, shown in an undated photo, was only 29 when he died on his way to a New Year's Day 1953 concert in Canton, Ohio.
At the wheel was Charles Carr, a college freshman on Christmas break from Auburn. The man in the back seat was singer-songwriter Hank Williams Sr.
"I ran in and explained my situation to the two interns who were in the hospital," said Carr, now a 67-year-old Montgomery businessman. "They came out and looked at Hank and said, `He's dead.'
"I asked 'em, `Can't you do something to revive him?' One of them looked at me and said, `No, he's just dead.' "
It was a last ride that would help define American music and pop culture for decades to come.
Long before there was Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain or even James Dean, there was Hiram "Hank" Williams, a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges Alabama country boy who wrote simple, heart-tugging songs about loneliness.
The last hours of his troubled life long ago passed from reality to myth. Biographers have speculated about what really happened. Officials have issued sketchy reports that only increased the mystery. Songwriters and playwrights still rhapsodize about it. A Web site dedicated to Williams estimates that more than 700 songs have been written about the singer, whose own recording career lasted only five years.
But only Carr knows the truth about those final hours. In recent years, he has begun to talk, trying to set the record straight.
He thinks Williams died -- the official cause was heart failure -- somewhere between Bristol, Tenn., and Oak Hill on the way to a New Year's Day 1953 show in Canton, Ohio.
"I'm certainly not an authority on Hank Williams," Carr said. "But I'm the only authority on Hank Williams' death."
Some biographies have speculated that Williams died at a Knoxville hotel and that porters unwittingly placed his corpse in his car for the trip north. Others have him dying on the road with an unfinished song in his hands, bedroom slippers on his feet and a pint of vodka in his pocket.
All bunk, retorts Carr, who maintains Williams was very much alive and wearing white cowboy boots, a stylish blue overcoat and a white fedora when he left Knoxville at 10:45 p.m. New Year's Eve en route to a concert 500 snowy miles north.
"The story seems to get better as every year goes by," Carr said. "But Hank's life doesn't need to have anything added to it. It was sensational enough as it was."
But by the time Carr got behind the wheel of Williams' ragtop Cadillac on Dec. 30, 1952, the troubadour's life was in a full-tilt meltdown. He was divorced from his first wife, Audrey. Though remarried, he was staying at his mother's downtown Montgomery boardinghouse, having been demoted from the Grand Ole Opry to the Louisiana Hayride, the farm team of country music. He was taking morphine shots for constant back pain after major surgery the year before (he suffered from spina bifida), ingesting a dangerous sedative, chloral hydrate, to sleep and playing the same backwater clubs he'd escaped just a few years earlier.
Williams knew Carr's father, who ran a Montgomery taxi service, and the teenager was asked to drive an obviously ailing Williams to gigs in Charleston, W.Va., and Canton, major concert dates that Williams hoped would be the start of a comeback.
It was a journey that seemed doomed from the start.
By the time Carr helped Williams load his guitars and stage suits into the car trunk, the weather across much of the South was deteriorating. Rain was turning to ice and snow.
Carr recalls the 6-foot-2 Williams was sick and frail at the time, weighing perhaps 130 pounds, but disputes reports that the singer, long a heavy drinker, was guzzling booze most of the trip.
"He had a very low tolerance for alcohol at that point," Carr said. "We bought a six-pack of Falstaff (beer) in Montgomery before we left, and there were several cans left when he died." A rudimentary autopsy found Williams had traces of alcohol in his blood when he died, but it found no drugs, although it's unclear if pathologists tested for them.
Carr remembers Williams being in good spirits as the trip began. They told jokes, sang songs and traded tales as they navigated the two-lane highways of the pre-interstate South.
"We were just a couple of young guys on a car trip having fun," he said.
They spent the night at a hotel in Birmingham and got an early start on New Year's Eve as the weather continued to worsen. Carr remembers Williams buying a pint of bonded bourbon in Fort Payne, Ala.
It was snowing by the time they reached Chattanooga, and Williams decided to try to catch a flight from Knoxville to make the Charleston show on time. The flight took off at 3:30 p.m., but was turned back due to the bad weather, so they found themselves stuck in Knoxville for the night. The Charleston show was a bust, but they still hoped to make Canton.
Carr got them a room at the 17-story Andrew Johnson Hotel, and they checked in about 7 p.m. to wait out the storm.
"We talked a while and ordered dinner up in the room," Carr said. "As I remember, Hank didn't eat much of anything. He had the hiccups real bad."
Carr called a doctor, who came and gave Williams two injections -- later determined to be morphine mixed with vitamin B-12.
Williams dozed off fully clothed, but about 10:30 p.m., Carr got a call from the concert promoter telling him they had to leave right away and drive through the night to make the Canton show.
"There was some kind of penalty clause in his contract ... so we had to be there for the New Year's Day concert or else," Carr said.
"When we left the room, they sent a wheelchair," Carr said. "They rolled him down to the car, and Hank got in on his own. I clearly remember that."
Carr got a ticket about an hour later in Blaine, Tenn., when he almost ran into a patrolman while trying to pass another car. He paid a fine and got back behind the wheel with Williams asleep in the back. It was after midnight by this time -- already New Year's Day -- and Carr had been behind the wheel since early that morning.
The teenager stopped in a small town to gas up and get a bite to eat. Carr said it could have been Bristol, Tenn., about 120 miles northeast of Knoxville, or it could have been Bluefield, a town in West Virginia. It was dark, and he was bone-tired in unfamiliar territory.
"I remember Hank got out to stretch his legs, and I asked him if he wanted a sandwich or something," Carr said. "And he said, `No, I just want to get some sleep.' "
Carr drove on, but became increasingly concerned about the eerie silence in the back seat. He pulled off the road to check on Williams, who was lying with his head toward the passenger seat and had his left hand across his chest.
"He 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."
Carr pulled into the next service station he saw and told the owner he needed to get to a hospital fast. The man pointed the way, and Carr remembers seeing a road sign for Oak Hill, six miles away.
Revisiting the scene,br> On a bright December day a few weeks ago, Carr strolled through the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery. He sat for a few minutes in the driver's seat of the Cadillac he drove that night.
The overcoat that Williams was wearing is in a glass case nearby, as is one of his pearl-handled pistols and the shoeshine kit he used as a boy to help support his family.
Carr moved on after that long-ago brush with fame. He went back to Auburn University, got a degree, served in the military, got married, had kids and became a successful businessman. He now has a home in Montgomery and a weekend lake house.
He has a framed poster for the concert that he and Williams never got to, and he keeps a pair of cowhide gloves the singer gave him on that final trip.
He'll attend a New Year's Day memorial service for Williams at his much-visited grave in Montgomery's Oakwood Cemetery Annex.
A visitor observes that Carr has survived the years about as well as the old Cadillac, which has been immaculately restored. Carr laughs at the suggestion.
"No, no," he said. "I'm an old man. But Hank Williams never had to worry about that. He'll always be young to me."
Those bozos would have to have actually heard of him.
Once Hank Williams shot at June Carter (before she was June Carter Cash).
He was really a messed up fellow, out of his mind on drugs and alcohol.
Musically and lyrically he was a genius. No rock musician has matched him.
Another love before my time made your heart sad and blue
And so my heart is paying now for things I didn't do
Those bozos would have to have actually heard of him. Sadly, I have to agree. Today's Nashvile Top 40 is a long ways from what Nashville Country and Westrern once was.
But there were some in the business who remember. And still are a few.