Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Sixty Years On

Category:  Tribute

Sixty years ago a 29-year-old singer/songwriter died somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee and Oak Hill, West Virginia.  A man died and a legend was born.

Hank Williams was arguably country music's first tabloid cover boy.  Randy Travis, George Jones, Johnny Pacheck or Tammy Wynette had nothing on Hank.  That's part of the legend.

It's also part of the reality:  when the promoter in Canton, Ohio came onstage at the New Year's Day show that Hank was en route to headline and announced that Williams had died, a number of the members of the audience initially laughed, thinking it was just another excuse Hank had concocted to miss a show.  Only when the other performers on the show -- Homer & Jethro (who were good friends with Williams), regional star Hawkshaw Hawkins, singer/songwriter Autry Inman (later best-known for writing the Louvin Brothers' sole #1 hit, "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"), his "Jack & Daniel" partner Floyd Robinson, and the Webb Sisters (June and Shirley) -- came onstage to sing "I Saw the Light" did the people who had scoffed realize it was no joke.

The former Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street in
Knoxville, where Hank Williams spent his last evening
alive on December 31, 1952.
c. 2013 K.F. Raizor
Hank Williams got as far as Knoxville on December 31, 1952 when it became obvious he was not going to make it to Charleston, West Virginia in time for that evening's show.  He was over 300 miles away and, before the interstate system came into being, faced with several hours of snow-covered mountainous roads   He chartered a plane out of Knoxville but the plane was forced back due to weather conditions.  Williams and his 18-year-old driver checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel, located near the river on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, for some rest.

During the short hiatus (they were only there for three and a half hours) a doctor came to Williams' room and gave him an injection.  At about 10:30 p.m. the driver and Williams left the Andrew Johnson Hotel and drove into history.

We take these things for granted today.  The rock world has what is known as the "27 club," a sadly long list of musicians who died at the age of 27 from living far too hard.  Some seemed to gloat in it, too:  Jimmy McCullough, the lead guitarist for Paul McCartney's Wings, boasted in a the song "Wino Junko," "Ain't scared to die at such a high."  (McCullough died of a heroin overdose in 1979 at the age of 26, not living long enough to make it to the "27 club.")  It's now almost automatic to think that drugs were involved when someone famous dies young.  In 1953, however, such things were much rarer than they are today.  In addition to women problems Hank had drinking problems and, thanks to a chronically painful back, prescription addiction problems.  To this day people speculate what combination of the latter two caused Hank's death, and whether it was an accident, a body that had simply had all the substances pumped into it that it could stand, or a physician's negligence (as later speculated in the deaths of rock king Elvis and pop king Michael Jackson). 

Barry Mazor wrote an award-winning book titled Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, which dealt with the various singers across diverse genres who have covered songs written by the Singing Brakeman.  Maybe Williams needs one written about him as well.  Never mind the countless country and bluegrass singers who have done Hank Williams songs (and Williams may well be the most referenced country singer in other people's songs), when punk bands like The The are doing entire albums of Hank Williams songs people are going to sit up and take notice.  

Unlike many other people who died young, Hank Williams left behind an amazing treasure trove of songs.  More than the speculation about how he died, more than the colorful "short life of trouble" (to borrow a song title, written before Hank was even born, that seems to fit him so well) he led, those songs are the reason people whose parents weren't born when Hank died are remembering him today.

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