It's one of the most chilling and enduring images in country music history.
Forty years ago to the day, Hank Williams, then the most popular country singer, was stretched across the back of a Cadillac speeding through West Virginia to make a New Year's Day gig in Canton, Ohio.
In the pockets of his jacket were a pint of vodka, several tablets of the sedative chloral hydrate and a loaded pistol. On his right arm was a pinpoint of blood from two injections of morphine he'd had the day before to quell his chronic back pain.
At 5 a.m. Jan. 1, 1953, 17-year-old Charles Carr, whom Hank hired to drive him from Knoxville to Canton after the airport was snowed in, stopped in Oak Hill, W.Va., to ask directions. He looked back at his human cargo and saw that Williams was awfully still and looked a ghostlier shade of white than usual. He felt Hank's hand and it was cold. Sometime during the night, Hank Williams' heart had broken for real. He was 29 years old.
The officer who responded to the driver's frantic call pronounced Hank dead and found a piece of paper in his hand: It was a song he'd been working on, with a last line that read, "I love you still and always will, but that's the poison we have to pay." Though Williams had made a big show out of marrying 19-year-old beauty Billie Jean Jones only two months earlier, his last thoughts were of Audrey Williams, his dominant and ambitious first wife, who had divorced him after almost eight years of fighting and making up.
Mostly they fought over Hank's drinking and, given an ultimatum, he even quit for a while. Every couple of weeks or so he would return to the gutter, however, with a bender for the record books, and Miss Audrey would throw him out. The more she forbade his drinking, the more he wanted a drink. No woman tells the great Hank Williams what to do.
During the last year of his life, he was drunk almost all the time, missing gigs and ultimately being fired from the Grand Ole Opry.
Zelda to his F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nancy to his Sid, Audrey was both Hank Williams' inspiration and a constant source of mental torture. It turned out that they were one and the same, as such painful songs as "Alone and Forsaken," "For Me There Is No Place," "A Teardrop On A Rose" and "I Can't Escape From You" impeccably mirror what was going on in the stormy relationship. "Your Cheatin' Heart," perhaps Williams' best-loved song, was written in reaction to Miss Audrey's high-profile infidelity.
Even considering the output of Chuck Berry, Stephen F. Foster, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Prince and Irving Berlin, Hank Williams is America's greatest songwriter. Such tunes as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey Good Lookin'," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "I Saw the Light," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Jambalaya" are as much a part of this country's fabric as the stars and stripes. These songs will be around as long as teardrops fall and folks wonder what it all means.
In the end, however, Hank Williams' talent became more curse than blessing. When you're the best at something and you're constantly rewarded for it with applause, money, sex and adulation, it's hard to not think that you're better than everyone -- else. Hank loved to read the Billboard charts, to see his name next to No. 1. But when he put down the magazine, he had the same sort of doubts and fears as everyone else. As soon as the party was over, the sad thoughts would engulf him. His response was to keep the party going.
In many ways, Hank was two different people. He craved a family life and worshiped the little boy he nicknamed "Bocephus," yet he spent months at a time on the road, boozing and carousing. He played the Cadillac Cowboy to the hilt every Saturday night, but he also recorded moralistic Sunday morning songs like "Luke the Drifter." He was a lazy drunk and a prolific songwriter, a
consummate craftsman who often wet the bed. His drunken escapades are legendary, but when he didn't drink, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" showed him as the most sober man alive.
"Did you ever see a robin weep
"When leaves begin to die
"That means he's lost his will to live
"I'm so lonesome I could cry."
It's easy to think that it was such a waste. There were so many great songs that Hank Williams never got the chance to write. Hank did his best to obliterate all his gifts with drugs and alcohol until he finally succeeded in a big way on New Year's Eve 40 years ago. He would only be 69 if he were still alive, so we have to be sad about the 40 years of Hank Williams we were cheated out of.
But would Hank Williams have been the same songwriter if he wasn't possessed by the emotional demons that were only exorcised by his death? Maybe he was one of those brilliant flame-outs who was just passing through the town that he owned.