Rock and Roll Graveyard, Part 2
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 1953, a baby blue Cadillac convertible pulled into a drive-in restaurant in rural West Virginia. The 17-year-old driver of the car went into the restaurant and emerged seconds later with an older man. The older man looked into the back seat of the Cadillac and told the driver, “I think you have a problem.”
The driver sped on down the road to nearby Oak Hill, where he asked for help at a gas station. A few minutes later, doctors in the town’s hospital pronounced country singer Hank Williams dead.
Hank Williams Sr., also known as Luke the Drifter, Hank 1, Hank Sr. or just plain Hank, is perhaps one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time. The songs he recorded in his short career – many of which he wrote – are part of the foundation of American popular culture and have been remade countless times by country, rock, gospel and blues artists. To this day, Hank Williams is still reverentially remembered by many in Nashville.
At the time of his death, Williams was being driven to a New Year’s Day concert date in Canton, Ohio. He began the final journey of his life in Knoxville, Tennessee, when foggy conditions grounded his flight to Ohio. Charles Carr, a college student, was hired to be the driver. Before leaving the hotel in Knoxville, Williams apparently injected himself with painkillers and vitamin B-12 and Carr enlisted the help of hotel porters to literally carry the singer out to his car. Many people believe the singer may have already been dead at this point.
After driving nearly 300 miles through much of the night, Carr wheeled into the parking lot of the Skyline Drive-In and he noticed the singer’s coat had slipped off his skinny shoulders. When he went to adjust the coat, Carr realized something was seriously wrong. Hank Williams’ mother went to Oak Hill to claim the body and make the final arrangements for the singer’s final journey home to Montgomery, Alabama, where he is buried.
Many of the details surrounding Hank Williams’ death have melted away into legend. There are mysteries, of course – like what happened to some of the singer’s possessions that he carried in his car? People in Oak Hill bragged years later that they had Williams’ cowboy hat, or his guitar, or his boots. Apparently some of this stuff, including Williams’ pearl-handled .45 pistol, disappeared while his car was being stored at the gas station.
One story goes that the station’s manager at the time was later seen wearing Williams’ cowboy hat. When a deputy sheriff went to retrieve the hat, the gas station manager said it was given to him by Williams’ mother. Later, however, the guy told people the hat was cursed because his hair started falling out. Some years went by, and the guy committed suicide behind the gas station.
Upon his death Hank Williams received an outpouring of love, contrasting sharply with the hard-luck misery that characterized the final year of his life. He was kicked out of his house by his wife Audrey and he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry for failing to appear at Opry-organized gigs. In fact, he was so unreliable at this point that Williams could only book beer halls in Louisiana and Texas; when he died Williams had been booked for four shows in two days. Hank was in horrible health, and his physical problems were only made worse by a bogus doctor he hired to give him dangerous drugs.
Hank Williams only helped his legendary status by dying young. He always did have this eerie timing: his last hit while he was alive was “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” and the song he was writing the night he died was “Then Came That Fateful Day.” He set the blueprint for songwriting, a deeply personal style mimicked by giants like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and became an icon of American music.