Williams' death as mysterious as his life

CMT examines singer's last days

January 01, 2003|By Dave Ferman | Dave Ferman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In death, as in his brief life (he died at 29), Hank Williams was an enigma wrapped in contradictions.

He was a country music legend, but - like George Jones in the 1970s and Axl Rose last year - had messed up his career by either not showing up to his shows or arriving staggering drunk and surly when he did.

His persona was of a virile ladies' man, but he and his longtime wife, Audrey, fought incessantly, and by many accounts he took as much abuse as he dished out.

And, finally, although he was beloved by thousands, he died cold and alone and in pain, in the back seat of a Cadillac driven by a stranger, Charles Carr, who was taking him to a New Year's Day show in Canton, Ohio, on Jan. 1, 1953.

He was miles from his sunny boyhood home in Alabama; the town that had long embraced him, Nashville; a pregnant ex-girlfriend, Bobbie Jett; his gorgeous, young second wife of less than three months, Billie Jean; and his young son, Hank Williams Jr., who would grow up to cut a substance-fueled country-rock swath through Music City in the '70s and '80s.

The coroner's report said Williams died from a "heart condition and hemorrhaging," according to a newspaper story dated Jan. 11, 1953. But debate about where Williams took his last breath continues to this day. It may have been at a stop in Knoxville, Tenn., or in Bristol, Tenn., where Carr stopped again, or somewhere along the frigid highway between Bristol and Oak Hill, W.Va. That's where Carr realized Williams was dead on that first still morning of 1953.

But what's beyond debate is that Williams' death was a pivotal event in country music history, the sad last act of a life that had gone from the highest highs - hit singles, multiple encores at the Grand Ole Opry, endless public acclaim - to the bottoms of puke-sick drunk binges, enforced stays in sanitariums, the wrath of promoters and fans, and the ceaseless pain of spinal problems.

Tortured by back pain and alcoholism, Williams looked like an old man. In photos taken during the last year or so of his life, he looks 40, if not older. His lonely death has inspired numerous songs, fanciful tales of his ghost thumbing a ride from country music fans and the legend of the lost, star-crossed superstar who could never outrun the demons nipping at his heels.

And now, 50 years after his death, Williams' life, death and legend are being examined with three hour-long programs on CMT.

Tonight at 7, the network will air Country's Most Shocking ... Deaths, Close Calls and Near Misses, which will look at his still-debated end. It will be followed by CMT Inside Fame: Hank Williams, which will include interviews with Hank Jr., Hank Sr.'s illegitimate daughter, Jett Williams, Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson and others.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., the network will air the one-hour Grand Ole Opry Live, which will include, for the first time ever, Hank Jr. and his equally wild son, Hank III, sharing the stage.

This coming together of two generations of Williams' heirs is, first and foremost, savvy marketing. But it's also genuinely fitting because the two men have, in their own ways, kept Williams' legacy alive, both good and bad.

Hank Jr. fused redneck rock and hard country in the '70s and, like his daddy, became known for his rowdy lifestyle, which included drug and alcohol abuse. He scored hit after hit, and several, such as "Family Tradition," celebrated his fondness for keeping the family's hard-partying ways alive.

These days, Hank Jr. is more settled, an old dog with more bark than bite. The family's rough 'n' rowdy ways, though, have definitely been taken up by Hank III, who, with his voice and skinny frame and face, can look and sound eerily like his grandfather. Or what his grandfather would look and sound like if he wore battered cowboy hats and stained metal-band T-shirts and sometimes did whole sets of hard rock.

He also parties as hard as Grandpa and is known to love pot as well as the bottle. A few years ago, a profile in Esquire magazine featured a long interview conducted in the back of his tour bus over many joints.

And though country fans may not love it when he straps on a guitar and blasts out Misfits covers, they can't turn away, either. Hank III is still finding his lyrical voice as a country singer - yep, he does a lot of songs about drinkin' and driftin' - but he'll never lack for an audience. The Williams name continues to carry with it an unbeatable cachet of authenticity, an odd sort of ragged, unholy glory.

Can anyone imagine a Williams spawn who donned a three-piece suit and became a stockbroker? Of course not. Hank Williams was a man who appeared drawn, against his will, to the dark side, to the land of far too much of everything. Looking at pictures of him, old before his time and sometimes falling-down drunk backstage, it is all but impossible to believe he could have lived to be an old man and ended up mellow and settled in a mansion on the hill.

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