HANK WAS PURE AND SIMPLE
By Gerald Hodges
My daddy was the greatest, said Jett Williams, daughter of the legendary singer. I mean he was great back when he was living, but his songs have become more popular since his death.
His music is the standard by which all other country music is still measured.
Williams's place of death is listed as Oak Hill, West Virginia, January 1, 1953. He died in the back seat of his Cadillac, while being chauffeured by Charles Carr of Montgomery, AL. He was scheduled to appear in Charleston, West Virginia and Canton, Ohio the following two nights.
His actual death was somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee and Oak Hill.
Hank's last record release before his death was, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
After his death many northern newspapers referred to him as a hillbilly star.
Maybe it was because he wore cowboy boots and hat, and was from Alabama. For certain, he was not a polished, social person. His life was filled with sorrows, sadness, and many other emotions.
But his words were pure and straight from the heart, like these verses he wrote for his wife Audrey after she left him for the last time. It was all from the heart.
We met we lived and dear we loved
Then came that fatal day
The love that we felt so dear
Fade far away
Tonight we both are alone
And here all that I can say
I hope you still and always will
But that's the price we have to pay
Elonzo (Lonnie) Huble Williams and Jessie Lilybelle Skipper were married in 1916. Lonnie served in France during World War I. After his discharge, the family settled in Butler County, and began farming. A late freeze in 1920, forced the family to move a few miles south near Georgiana.
Between 1920 and 1921, the couple's first son, Ernest Huble, was born, but he had a digestive problem and died.
The couple's second child, Irene, was born on August 8, 1922.
The following year, on Sept. 17, 1923, Hiram (Hank) Williams was born in a small house near Mount Olive, Alabama.
Lonnie Williams was employed by W. T. Smith Lumber Co., but somewhere between 1929 and 1930, Lon left the family and went to the Veterans Administration hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana.
Supposedly, an injury he had received during the war began to bother him, and he experienced a lot of pain in his face and jaw. Eventually his mouth became so paralyzed that he was unable to speak. His face was motionless.
While Lonnie was in the hospital, Lillie took the two children and household belongings and moved to a house at 127 Rose Street in Georgiana. After a few years, she moved the family to Greenville, and then on to Montgomery. During this time, the family received Lonnie's disability check.
According to an article by Steve Maze in the March 1999 issue of Yesterday's Memories, one day Lonnie was sitting in his hospital bed when something exploded in his head. Blood began pouring from his ears, nose, and mouth.
It was an aneurysm in his brain that had ruptured, but instead of killing him, he made a remarkable recovery. The paralysis disappeared from his face and he was able to speak again.
Lonnie thought he would return to his family, but his former wife, Lillie had other ideas. She practically threw him and his clothes out the door when he tried to move in with them in Montgomery. Lonnie moved to McWilliams, Alabama, and Hank would either hitchhike, or ride a bus to visit him.
It was when Lillie had moved the family to the house in Georgiana that Hank became serious about singing. One of his first tutors was a Negro, named Tee-Tot, who lived just outside Georgiana.
In an interview with Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle, before his death, Hank said: I been singing ever since I can remember. My mother was an organist in Mount Olive, Alabama, and my earliest memory is sittin' on that organ stool by her and hollerin'. I must have been five, six years old and louder'n anybody. I learned to play guitar from an old colored man. He was named Tee-Tot, and he played in a colored street band. I was shinin' shoes, sellin' newspapers, and followin' this old Negro around to get him to teach me to play the guitar. I'd give him fifteen cents or whatever I could get hold of for a lesson. When I was about eight years old, I got my first guitar. It was a second hand one that my mother bought for me for $3.50.
The house in Georgiana was a raised cottage and Hank would sit under it playing his guitar and singing. Since it was right next to the L&N Railroad tracks, it is here that he first learned to write and play the lonesome songs he would later become famous for.
Hank was 13 when Lillie moved the family into a large boarding house in Montgomery. During the weekends, and when they were not in school, Lillie would roast peanuts, and Hank and Irene would sell them on the downtown streets.
One of Hank's favorite spots was in front of radio station WSFA. He would set up shop and sell whatever his mother had prepared for him. In addition, he shined shoes, and played his guitar to whoever would listen. Soon he was being brought into the studio to perform.
His earliest performances on WSFA was in late 1937 or early 1938. By 1941, he had his own radio show.
Braxton Schufert was one of the early radio entertainers. In addition to playing a guitar and singing, Schufert delivered meat for Hormel.
He was just a thin kid when I first met him, no more than 15, Schufert said in a 2005 interview. He was always playing his guitar. His voice wasn't like a teenage boy, it sounded more like a man's. His music wasn't polished, he just sang straight notes. He knew how to play, but he took a liking to me, and pretty soon, I was giving him some tips and he began to play more and more.
Hank was still in school when he met Hezzy Adair. Hezzy lived with his father. His mother was dead. Hezzy could play a mouth harp and guitar.
The first few times we played together, it was Hezzy, Hank, a fiddle player, named, Freddie Beach, Irene, and myself. I had the contract to play for a theater chain in Montgomery and some other towns.
Hank's mother provided the car. I think it was a Ford station wagon. They had several evening matinees, and we would play maybe three shows during the evening and night. I think the pay was seventy-five dollars. That was a lot of money back then.
Schufert continued to play off and on with Hank and the band, but he refused to give up his meat delivery job.
The Drifting Cowboys band was not comprised of the same members throughout his entire career. Some of the players were regulars, while others played off and on, or as needed.
According to Pee Wee Moultrie, the original title of the band was Hank and Hezzy's Driftin' Cowboys.
Moultrie, who now lives near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, was one of the earliest band members. His father bought him a guitar and it didn't take him long to learn how to play it. After hearing Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys on the Grand Ole Opry, he fell in love with the accordion.
I was working with a small band in 1939 and we had gone to Montgomery to play on the radio (WCOA), said Moultrie. While we were in there I noticed a couple fellows watching me.
It turned out they were Hank Williams and Hezzy Adair, and they were looking for a couple of musicians.
It wasn't too long after that, the name was changed to Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys. Hezzy continued to play with us, but his name was dropped. I'm not sure, but I think he had another job, and it had something to do with that.
We hardly survived. If it hadn't been for Hank's mother putting us up in her boarding house in Montgomery and feeding us, we couldn't have made it. We didn't make enough money to buy toothpaste.
We played schools, churches, and theaters. I'll bet we played every school in the state. We even played in cow pastures. Once, we played at Camp Kilby, the prison outside Montgomery.
After leaving the band, Moultrie spent 29 years in the Air Force. He continues to play part-time in a band, Hank's Drifters, formed by another former Drifting Cowboy, Clent Holmes.
Moultrie lives in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.
There were several women singers, including Sue Taylor who went with the band when a female vocalist was needed, but Bernice Turner is considered the only regular female band member.
Hank, who continued to live in Montgomery, was unable to keep his band together after the start of World War II. Since he was classified 4-F, he was exempt from military service. He worked first in a shipyard in Portland, Oregon, and then as a welder at a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama.
But his mother still had faith in him. After booking him for several shows, she rented a car and drove to Mobile, where she picked him up and the pair returned to Montgomery. At the time, he was unable to get his band together, and joined a medicine show that was touring south Alabama.
While touring with the medicine show in 1943, Hank met his future wife, Audrey. She was still married at the time and had a two-year-old daughter, Lycrecia.
According to, Reflections on Those Who Loved Him, MGM Records, Audrey said they were married on December 15, 1944.
I knew Hank about a year before I married him. All that time, he was trying to get me to marry him. I was hesitant because he had a drinking problem, and I'd never been around anyone with a drinking problem.
He was living in a trailer in Andalusia and playing a club, a rather large club in Andalusia. I was doing the cooking for the boys in the band. All of a sudden one afternoon, he asked me, and I said, 'Yes.'
He'd been doing real good, not drinking. We went by the justice of the peace, who ran a filling station, with a couple of the boys in the band, and we got married.
Their love affair was certainly something of a love/hate relationship. In a 2002 interview Don Helms, Hank's steel guitar player gave the following account of their personal life.
Within a week after they were married, Hank went on a drinking binge. They got into a fight, I guess because Audrey got mad over his drinking. She called the police after Hank threw some of her clothes out of the trailer they were living in.
They took him to jail and locked him up. I had to go down and get him out. Back then drinking and fighting wasn't all that big of a deal with the police. They pick you up, take you to jail. You pay the fine and that's about all there was to it.
I remember one of the policemen thanked Hank, or something like that, and Hank said, 'Go to hell.'
After the war ended, Hank went back to his old job on WSFA. Quite often he showed up drunk, or not all. The station tried to fire him several times, but each time there were so many phone calls from listeners, that he was reinstated.
It was Audrey that helped him get to Nashville. She arranged an interview with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. Hank tried to back out of the meeting, but according to Audrey, she forced him to go.
During that first meeting, Rose didn't think Hank had written the songs that he brought with him. Rose gave Hank the title, Mansion on the Hill, and asked Hank to make up the words to it. He and Audrey went back home, and a few days later, they returned with the completed song.
Rose placed Hank with a small label, Sterling. After cutting four records, Rose negotiated a new contract with MGM, and Hank was on his way to stardom.
While Hank's music career was moving up, his personal and married life was headed down. On April, 28, 1948, Audrey filed for divorce, stating, Hank Williams my husband is twenty-four years of age. He has a violent and ungovernable temper. He drinks a great deal, and during the last month, he has been drunk most of the time. My nervous system has been upset and I am afraid to live with him any longer.
The divorce was final on May 26, 1948.
But once again, Hank had pulled himself back together and sobered up.
He and Audrey got back together. The pair moved to Shreveport, Louisiana so Hank could play on the Louisiana Hayride on Radio Station KWKH.
Clent Holmes joined the Drifting Cowboys in 1948 and played with Hank until he left for the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. His wife, Mayme, was a close friend of Williams' wife Audrey and often was a baby sitter for Hank Jr.
Clent recalls some of his early experiences with Hank.
It was in early 1948 that I met Hank, he said I was on my way to Abilene, Texas, to work with my brother, when I decided to stop off at a radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana. Hank was there, and he needed a guitar player to go with him on a tour, and then return to the Louisiana Hayride.
The tour was for the Chamber of Commerce. They had it arranged where the train stopped at almost every pig-trail, along the way, until we arrived in Houston. We would just sing wherever the train stopped.
Holmes and Hank got along good. He even allowed Holmes to drive his big Packard automobile whenever the band toured.
Hank had a lot of confidence in me. Holmes continued. He was one of the most honest fellows you ever met. When it came time for payday, he would look you up in order to pay you. A lot has been said about his drinking, but he was also a down-to-earth honest person who loved fishing and good country food."
Hank was so easy to play with. That's why he went over so good. He might write a song in the front seat of his Packard and not say a word to us. When he got up on stage to sing that night, he'd just say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, it makes an old country boy like me feel good to write a song in the car while we were coming on down here, and I want to play it for you.'
Then he'd turn to us and say, 'Hit me the key of C, boys.' And that would be the first time we'd ever heard the song.
Every time he went on stage, he had something different and funny. He was always carrying on and was a pleasure to work with. Just a one-time genius is the best way I know how to describe him.
The Grand Old Opry in Nashville called Hank Williams in 1949. They wanted Hank to use Nashville musicians, and Clent and the other Louisiana Hayride band members were left behind.
Hank made his farewell appearance on the Hayride on June 3, 1949, before a standing room only audience. His last song was Lovesick Blues.
He quickly became country music's biggest star, rising above Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, and Eddie Arnold.
His big hits were, Lovesick Blues, Cold, Cold Heart, You're Gonna Change, or I'm Gonna Leave, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, and I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You.
He would be sober for months at a time and traveled almost all the time through tours arranged by the Grand Ole Opry, and was only home on weekends.
Hank had incredible power over his fans and audiences. Jerry Rivers describes his uncanny ability in From Life to Legend, in 1967.
I could not then, nor can I yet, understand the almost uncanny power Hank Williams had over his audience. As we rolled out of Nashville in his blue Packard, after my first Opry appearance with Hank, I sat quietly in the back knowing I had changed. In those few moments on stage, watching Hank perform, and watching the audience respond, I regained a humility I'd lost somewhere along the way.
In an interview several years ago, Little Jimmy Dickens, said, When he came on stage, it was over. People came unglued.
But by late 1949, his life's downward spiral had accelerated.
The road was terrible. The grind was incessant. The endless travel aggravated a back problem, and Hank had become more and more addicted to painkillers as well as his long-time foe, alcohol.
He and Audrey drifted further and further apart. He excluded her on all of his performances. The songs, A House Without Love, and Why Should We Try Anymore? clearly point to the failed marriage.
He had been friends with Louisiana Sen. Dudley LeBlanc owner of the Hadacol Caravan, one of the last traveling medicine shows. Hank appeared for several months on the show, going from town to town on a train. Hank was owed a considerable sum when the show closed at the end of 1951. All the checks given to him bounced.
His career and marital stress brought more and more problems. He drank more, and almost as soon as he started, he would be unable to work. Occasionally, he would be taken to hospitals or sanitariums to dry out.
A former nurse at one such clinic in Andalusia, Alabama recalls one time Hank was brought in.
They told us in advance that a famous person was going to be admitted, she said. When they brought him in, he was really soused. But he was hollering and carrying on. No one could understand what he was saying about something he had in a cloth sack he was carrying. He grabbed that sack away from a nurse, and before anyone could stop him, ran outside and started scattering shotgun shells all over the yard. He thought he was feeding the chickens.
He stayed for a few days and the longer he stayed, the nicer he was. Several days after he was discharged, all the nurses received candy and flowers.
In 1951, Hank disbanded the Drifting Cowboys and went into Vanderbilt Medical Center for an operation on his back. He was scheduled for a show on New Year's, 1952, but everyone knew he wasn't able.
Audrey replaced him on the show. Before she left home, he had grabbed a shotgun and fired it several times. She took the children and left. She called him to tell him, 'she would never live with him again.'
In 1952, Hank had constant back pain. He really never had a regular band again, always picking up musicians in towns where he had a date.
During some performances, he was unable to stand erect and often left out words in a song.
Hank returned to Nashville in early 1952 and shared a house with another up and coming star, Ray Price. He got on a pretty regular schedule, with broadcasting and personal appearances, but he still had discomfort traveling. In March and April, he appeared on the Kate Smith Evening Hour television program. He was on target with his singing, and both performances turned out well. Footage from them is still in existence.
In June, 1952, Hank and Audrey's divorce was proceeding, and Hank had a new girlfriend, a dancer, named, Bobbie Jett, who lived in Nashville. She already had a daughter, and was pregnant with Hank's child.
During the last half of 1952, Hank's life continued to go downhill, but he was able to make some good recordings; including Jambalaya,
Even though Bobbie Jett was pregnant, Hank met another strikingly beautiful woman from Shreveport, Billie Jean Jones.
Hank was fired from the Opry on August 11, 1952.
A week later, he went to Nashville and picked up Bobbie Jett and the two of them set up housekeeping in his mother's boarding house in Montgomery.
Hank was able to get back on the Louisiana Hayride. As soon as he hit Shreveport, he made up with Billie Jean.
Hank and Billie Jean were married twice. The first was on Friday night, Oct. 17. The second one was Oct. 18, in front of 14,000 people in the New Orleans City Auditorium. The second time was just for show and to make some extra money. All the fans had paid two dollars see the famous star.
Hank found a bogus doctor, Horace Tobey Marshall that had bought his medical diploma from a traveling salesman. Hank didn't like doctors, but he took a liking to Marshall. He began treating Hank's back pain with chloral hydrate, which can be deadly.
Hank's last tour began in Houston, Texas and ended Dec. 19, 1952. He might have had a light heart attack while in Houston, because his mother flew down to meet the group in San Antonio. Hank, Lillie, and Billie Jean returned to Shreveport after the Austin show.
Hank returned to Montgomery after the tour. It's unknown if he saw Bobbie Jett. He had a bad case of flu, but was able to sing at the Musicians party in Montgomery, on Dec. 28.
Hank left Montgomery with his chauffer, Charles Carr on Dec. 30. They stopped at a hotel in Knoxville, TN to spend the night. It was here that he learned that the Charleston, West Virginia show had been canceled. He received some injections from a doctor for his back pain.
The promoter instructed Hank to continue on to Canton, Ohio. They left Knoxville at 10:45 p.m. on New Year's Eve. A patrolman, who stopped the car in Rutledge, Tennessee for speeding, around 11 p.m., thought Hank was already dead. Stopping near Oak Hill, West Virginia, Carr found Hank's lifeless body on the morning of January 1, 1953.
The last recording he made during his lifetime, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, was released twenty four days after his death.
NOTE: Anything contained in this article may be used by newspapers or other newsmedia to promote the Hank Williams Festival. Nothing may be used on websites, magazines, or other publications without expressed permission from Gerald Hodges, 251-626-4086. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org