I Ain't Got Nothing But Time
The mostly true legend of Hank Williams
By David Ramsey
Photograph © Archive PL/Alamy
BUT SLEEP WON’T COME
It seems fitting to begin at the end. The final recording session Hank Williams had was banged out over a couple hours in a studio in Nashville on September 23, 1952. Four songs, four classics—including “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” That’s just how it was for Hank, even then, at the tail end of drinking himself to death. A little more than three months later, he died in the backseat of a baby blue Cadillac. He was in a bad way on booze and pills and injections, but the circumstances of his death, like his life, remain murky. We’ll get to that.
Hank’s second wife swore “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was about his first wife; his first wife swore he had written it about himself. It hardly matters.
On the one hand, we can say heartbreak is an essentially generic topic for a song, and the lament of the cuckold is a rather sour brand of the form. Still: Just listen. The lilt and longing in Hank’s voice. The freakish adrenaline in his delivery. His rubbery tenor, the way the tune yo-yos up and down like something about to snap. It is just one of those songs: Slinks up as lazily as a python; before you know it, you’re smothered. Sometimes I think it’s the meanest lullaby ever written.
The brief career of Hank Williams became such a definitional anchor for what was then mostly known as hillbilly music and is now known as country that you can catch yourself wondering if the whole genre might have had slightly different preoccupations if Hank wasn’t so fixated on cheating and drinking. There’s a tear in my beer, and so on and on. But he was a medium. He knew what the people wanted.
“If you’re gonna sing,” Hank said, “sing ’em something they can understand.”
After he died, a Wisconsin woman wrote in to a newspaper in Montgomery: “We have listened to Hank Williams on disc jockey shows so often that we felt he was a friend of ours; someone we had known for a long time.”
Hank called it folk music, before that term took on another connotation. Songs for the people. Drinking and cheating are familiar troubles, but they are also proxies, let’s say. There are so many ways to feel cheated, so many longings and lacks. There are so many troubles. I’m not here to tell you what country music is, but that’s what it is to me. You’ll cry and cry, and try to sleep.
They called him the Hillbilly Shakespeare, but that almost seems to miss the point. There is no meter to a certain sort of sorrow. Sometimes all we can do is howl. When the light fades to dusk, when the night is quiet and our mind is not, when the medicine wears off, when the road is long, when time is short. I got a feeling called the blues.
THE BOOK OF KINGS
He was born outside of Georgiana, Alabama, to Lon and Lillie Williams. His first name, according to state records, was Hiriam. They meant to give him the Old Testament name Hiram, but there was a mix-up on the birth certificate. As a boy, he went by “Harm” or “Herky” or “Skeets.”
His mother ran a boarding house that may or may not have doubled as a brothel. She was a large, intimidating woman who eventually worked the door when he played shows. “There ain’t nobody I’d rather have alongside me in a fight,” her son was heard to say, “than my mama with a broken bottle in her hand.”
His father sustained a serious head injury during his service in World War I, which may or may not have happened in a fight with another soldier over a French girl. Later, Lon had either an aneurysm or something like shellshock, and he left for the VA hospital when the boy was six years old. Likely in part due to Lillie’s efforts, he was mostly absent thereafter. He quit drinking eventually, but his son used to say, “If you think I’m a drunk, you shoulda seen my old man.” Lillie told everyone that Lon had died, so when he came back, people thought he was a ghost.
Around the time the boy moved to Montgomery as a teenager, he invented a new name for himself. He wanted to sing songs with a guitar and a cowboy hat—to be what we now call a country singer. As far as we know, that’s all he ever wanted to be.
And so he went by Hank.
The most hallowed story in the Hank Williams iconography is the day he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry, June 11, 1949. My mother was born thirteen days later; WSM’s 50,000-watt broadcast would have reached her home in Hampton, Virginia—it could reach much of the United States.
The story goes that Hank, not yet famous, came out onto the stage at the Ryman Auditorium as a no-name but started playing “Lovesick Blues,” which had by that point made it as a breakthrough hit. When the crowd recognized the song, they went wild. He tried to leave the stage after his number, but the crowd just wouldn’t let him. He was too magnetic. They yelled for him to return, and he did, and they yelled for him to return again, and he did. Just kept on playing “Lovesick Blues,” like a backwoods hypnotist. Hank’s gloomy groove. And the fans kept screaming to hear that yammer and yodel again. Like drunks at a bar: Just one more. He did six encores, and people were screaming for a seventh until the host had to move things along before they ran out of time for any other act. As the story goes, it was a record: Never before had an act received that many encores at the Opry. (Strange thing to keep a record on, but I like that, a Babe Ruth touch to the tale.)
The thing is, this story is probably not quite true. I am sure you could find old timers who swore they were there and this is just how it happened. I’m sure you still can. I don’t know. You might as well be fact checking the legends of King Arthur.
All I can tell you is that I choose to believe it: Hank, twenty-five years old, salty with ambition, his guitar high and his hat pulled low, putting a little wobble in his lanky legs, blinking out the sweat that fell in his eyes, so in tune with the electricity of his audience and of the particular moment that he could hardly feel the ache in his back, forgetting himself in the song, in the ache of the song, loving Nashville and fearing it, hating Nashville but loving it, the way they called his name, Hank, Hank, the way they loved him, the way he was loved. The way the stage lights flared like a sign in the firmament.
When the Opry moved out of the Ryman Auditorium for a bigger, air-conditioned venue around ten miles away in 1974, they cut out a circle of the white oak and maple stage at the Ryman and inlaid the six-foot circle into center stage at the new Grand Ole Opry House. Current country star Brad Paisley likes to say that “the circle still contains the dust from Hank Williams’ cowboy boots.” To stand where Hank stood. Hank was a hangdog drifter and a rowdy shitkicker, but it was still his dream to play the Opry, the old gatekeepers of genre convention.
I went to high school down the street from the Ryman Auditorium. And from Ernest Tubb’s record shop and the spot nearby where Hank Williams had tried and failed to make a splash with a Western wear store. And from where Hatch Show Print used to be, where I bought posters of Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, and Hank (“if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise”).
I sometimes wonder whether it was an accident that I became a country music fan. When I was five, my family moved, with some disappointment, from New England to Nashville for my dad’s job. It was a seedier town than it is now, and stranger. The honky-tonks downtown didn’t card, so we learned to drink to overqualified cover bands. Drunks at the karaoke bar swore that talent scouts were hiding in the back. Every waiter was a songwriter. My neighbor was a songwriter, my baseball coach was a songwriter. My best pal’s dad had once toured with Willie Nelson; as a toddler he was warned away from the baked goods.
My high school graduation was held at the Ryman, where Hank used to stumble after one too many whiskeys. I cannot say whether any dust from his boots remained. All this history was just background fuzz, we were just teenagers, trying to get drunk and run around. Ernest Tubb’s record shop closed last spring. It’s hard to conjure, now: Nashville as Mecca, Nashville as Gomorrah. When he was alive, the city had an uneasy relationship with Hank, who was always leery of the suits and the hucksters, always jittering with resentment. The Opry fired him in 1952 because he was an unreliable trainwreck. It was only after he was gone that he became the posthumous king of this sequined dominion. Or something more than king. As the song goes: Hank Williams, bless his name.
APHORISMS AND PROVERBS (1)
Sure, plenty people make fun of me, but I just ignore them. I figure they’re ignorant and don’t know any better.…The way I feel is that if you don’t like folk music stay away from my shows. Personally, I can’t stand classical stuff, but I don’t tell the world about it. I just turn the radio off. Now why can’t these folks who don’t like my kind of music do the same?
Hank Williams, 1951
You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.
He was around six foot one or so. One newspaper account said he was just 140 pounds, and it reportedly fell lower than that when his health got poorly. Bandmates called him “Bones.” He wore a cowboy hat or a fedora, often a Stetson. He wore suits custom designed by the legendary Nudie Cohn in California. He briefly wore a toupee at his wife’s urging. It was too hot; supposedly, he threw it out of the car one day on the road. He frequently referred to himself, in the third person, as “Ol’ Hank,” although he never grew old.
Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys © Archive PL/Alamy
He had thirty-five songs make the top ten on the country charts in just six years, with eleven reaching number one. When a DJ asked him why so many of his songs were sad, he replied, “I guess I always have been a saddist.” According to The Hank Williams Reader, at the time of its publication in 2014, he had been the subject of fifteen biographies and more than seventeen hundred articles in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals.
After he was born, his parents noticed a small lump on his back. Hank was likely born with a mild form of spina bifida, which apparently caused him agonizing pain throughout his life. One of the early songs he wrote was “Back Ache Blues.”
When Hank was three years old, he sold peanuts at a logging camp (at least according to Lon, who may have had a propensity to exaggerate). Whatever age he started, he sold peanuts and shined shoes and delivered groceries for years in his youth, plus any other work he could pick up. A bag of peanuts went for a nickel, same as a shine.
“He was a little bitty feller, with legs no bigger’n a buggy whip,” a local barbershop owner in Butler County told an early biographer of Hank. “He hung around here a lot, looking for food and cigarettes. If he did something for you, you could give him anything—a nickel, a piece of candy, a few peanuts. If you tossed a cigarette butt away, he’d dive for it ’fore it hit the floor. Still, he was a happy boy.”
He got a harmonica for Christmas when he was six years old. He likely got his first guitar when he was around eight. He dropped out of high school when he was sixteen.
He died on either the last day of 1952 or the first day of 1953, in either East Tennessee or Oak Hill, West Virginia, or somewhere in between. The autopsy stated that his “death resulted due to insufficiency of right ventricle of heart due to the high position of the diaphragm with following external edema of the brain, congestive hyperemia of all the parenchymatous organs and paralysis of the respiratory center with asphyxia (punctate hemorrhages).” Probably his heart gave out because of alcohol and prescription drugs, over the short and long haul.
“Reporters answering telephone queries concerning Williams’s death said many of the callers cried when informed that the reports were true,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser on January 2, 1953. The year he died, at least twenty tribute songs to him were released.
He was twenty-nine years, three months, and fourteen days old.
That might plausibly be in range of the age Jesus was when he went to the wilderness and fasted for forty days and forty nights. But, as with Hank, the records are imperfect on that account. Hank spent time abstaining and time in the wilderness, but it never stuck. In the Gospels, little is said about the savior’s hunger; no mention is made of the tempter’s diet. Some stories are a void—as spare as the desert. Every detail shimmers and fades like a mirage.
IT’S NO THANKS TO YOU THAT I’M STILL LIVING TODAY
The “Hank Williams Syndrome,” according to Waylon Jennings, who penned a song with that title: “Come to Nashville, write some good songs, cut some hit records, make money, take all the drugs you can and drink all you can, become a wild man and all of a sudden die.”
A COUNTERFACTUAL HISTORY
If Hank had lived, he would have turned one hundred next September. For context: He was born the same year as Henry Kissinger, and seven years before Clint Eastwood. For context: He was six years older than Anne Frank, and Martin Luther King Jr.
If he had lived, he would have heard Little Richard and Elvis and the Beatles. He would have heard Lil Nas X.
He would have seen his son become an icon in his own right. Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” is so righteous in its way that even this city boy feels big-hearted when it comes on the jukebox, full of vinegar and dumbass pride.
He would have met his grandson, Hank III, a dead ringer save for the tattoos.
He would have kept drinking. He would have raised hell with Johnny Cash. He would have torn it up at Tootsie’s. He would have sung a duet with Elvis. And Bob Dylan. He would have made Shel Silverstein buy him another shot of whiskey at a tiki bar in Key West in nineteen-seventy-something, just because. He would have made one last masterpiece, with Rick Rubin or Jack White or whoever, a return to his music’s simple roots. It would have been reverent, maybe too reverent. It would not, could not, be the same. He would have kept drinking—of that much, I am sure.
He would have stood on stage like a statue and accepted lifetime achievement awards. He would have kept playing long past his prime, and people would have kept showing up. Just to see him. Just to breathe the same air.
But he did not live. And so he is ageless, of another time. Hank with his guitar in black-and-white photos. He was signed up to be a movie star by MGM but he no-showed and was canned. He remains pure, for the purists. He remains unknowable. Storytellers and historians hunt through old articles and radio promotional materials. They double check state records and rifle through legal proceedings and re-read the transcripts of interviews from decades past with anyone who might have crossed his path. They gather the whisper of facts and conjectures from the archives. But this was before we knew everything about everyone. This was before we’d figured out how to preserve and catalog every bit of data about every little thing. A legend forms when much is lost.
Sometime, somewhere, some of Hank’s earliest recordings were heard for the final time, as the lacquer on the acetate discs faded away.
The whippoorwill is named for its song.
From the Audubon Field Guide: “Often heard but seldom observed, the Whip-poor-will chants its name on summer nights in eastern woods. The song may seem to go on endlessly; a patient observer once counted 1,088 whip-poor-wills given rapidly without a break.”
They feed at night. Parents offer meals to their baby birdies by regurgitating bugs.
The males are the singers. From the Audubon: “Courtship behavior not well known; male approaches female on ground with much head-bobbing, bowing, and sidling about.”
They migrate through Butler County, Alabama, but typically do not breed there.
According to legend, a whippoorwill knows when a soul leaves a body and can capture it in flight.
My favorite line from a country singer about birds comes from Bob Wills: As I think of the past and all the pleasures we’ve had / As I watch the mating of the dove. But I also swoon for the country-tinged “Whip-poor-will” by Magnolia Electric Co., whose frontman Jason Molina died in 2013 of alcohol-related organ failure: Still waiting / For you to sing that song again / The one you were singing at the very fall of man / It ain’t Hallelujah, but it might as well have been.
William Faulkner on whippoorwills, from his 1939 short story “Barn Burning”: “They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them.” Perhaps Faulkner was fond of Emily Dickinson’s verse: “Saying itself in new inflection— / Like a Whippoorwill—”
Data from birdwatchers’ observations suggests that the population of Eastern whippoorwills declined nearly seventy percent between 1970 and 2014.
I found a broken robin’s egg in my yard not too long ago. A nest nearby had fallen from a tree. I thought to give the shell to my daughter, but then I decided it was best to leave it alone. Robins do not weep, or savor mementos, but you never know.
LIKE A BIRD THAT FLEW
“I started writing songs after I heard Hank Williams,” Bob Dylan said in 1965. In a 1991 interview, he said, “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter.”
Hank died when Dylan, then Robert Zimmerman, was eleven years old. “Kept my fingers crossed, hoped it wasn’t true,” Dylan wrote later. “But it was true. It was like a great tree had fallen. Hearing about Hank’s death caught me squarely on the shoulder. The silence of outer space never seemed so loud.”
A LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER, APRIL 21, 2020
Marigold, you will not remember this day, when we sang together, like every day. We sang the cowboy song, the one with the whippoorwill. We ate blackberries. We saw a spider crawl across the cherry blossom petals and we were unafraid. The day was rich and ordinary. It was the first hot day of spring, and you mistook your sweat for tears. We went inside to cool off and drank cold water from little cold silver cups. You held it all by yourself, and said so. You saw a picture on the mantel of me and your mother in New Orleans and asked where you were. It was before you were born, I told you, and you asked me when that was, when was before? I told you stories from that time.
You made a picture with orange and green paint, all the brushstrokes in one direction. I named it “Time’s Arrow” and said we would keep it, and you hiccupped and said that hiccups mean you’re growing. Sing to me, you said, and it was still stuck in my head, so I sang it again, the song that always made you fall asleep when you were a baby. Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.
“You sang that to me when I was a baby,” you said.
“Yes,” I said.
This morning, you corrected your mother when she asked me to kill a “granddaddy longlegs” in the basement. It’s a daddy longlegs, you said. It is evening now and you are sleeping, or your mother is trying to get you to sleep, I don’t know. On my laptop, I scroll through news articles and there is so much news, the day was rich and ordinary. Someone in a suit says that we are living through history. I can see the lines of his makeup in high definition. The spider on the cherry blossoms will be lost to history. And the daddy longlegs. Your grandchildren probably won’t know my name.
I am writing these words, and later I will read them, which will not be the same as remembering. Later, I will read them and it will be time without texture, a memory once removed. I will still know the words to the song we sang. That feels, to me, like an important link. The memory made manifest.
This afternoon, I served you some cheddar bunnies. I asked if you wanted them in the yellow bowl. “It’s a dish,” you said. Pedantic, like your granddaddy.
You have so many ways of startling me. I was reading the big red Bible in our living room and you asked me to read it to you. I asked where I should read from. “The beginning,” you said, and sat on my lap. “In the beginning,” I read, and you listened intently all the way through the first round of begats, the descendants of Adam, which I’ve always thought of as the boring bit, but you were delighted by this part of the story.
“Aww!” you said, for each new generation. “Is it a baby? Another little baby!” Yes, I said. When Enosh had lived ninety years, he became the father of Kenan.
“Oooh,” you said. “Aww.” Another cute little baby! And it’s true. It’s a miracle, every one, every generation. I wrapped my hand around your hand that looks like mine.
This is the list of the descendants of Adam. These are the families of Noah’s sons. These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.
These are the songs that we sang.
THE ADVENTURES OF TEE-TOT AND HANK
Rufus Payne was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in south Alabama, where his parents had been enslaved. He moved to New Orleans as a child, but later settled back in Alabama, where he became a street musician. He always had a flask with him, booze mixed with tea. They called him “Tee-Tot.”
It was perhaps in Georgiana, or somewhere around there, that a painfully skinny white boy named Hiram encountered Tee-Tot, who was one of the best-known street singers in the area. Tee-Tot would take the train in from his home in Greenville and play events or just play the corners, where if he was lucky, passersby would drop a nickel or a dime into his hat. A gaggle of boys would follow him around from spot to spot, Hank among them.
And Hank kept following him, with a single-minded obsession. He watched him perform any chance he could. Hank didn’t have a radio or phonograph at home at the time, so this was as good as it got. Presumably the boy had a nip of Tee-Tot’s special tea from time to time. And he’d scrape together nickels from shoe shining or selling newspapers to trade to Tee-Tot for some musical wisdom. “I’d give him fifteen cents, or whatever I could get a hold of for the lesson,” Hank said. According to Lillie, she sometimes gave him meals in exchange for teaching Hank. Hank’s sister remembered that Tee-Tot told Lillie that Hank was going to get them in trouble, a white kid following an older Black man around, but that apparently didn’t slow down Hank’s pursuit.
What did Tee-Tot sound like? What did Hank learn from him? We can only speculate, but perhaps Hank’s bluesy edge came from Tee-Tot—the wicked rhythm, the proto-rock shimmy, the aw-shucks showmanship. “If Daddy wasn’t a blues singer, just tell me who was,” Hank Jr. would say later. “Lightnin’ Hopkins, he said that country music ain’t nothin’ but white people’s blues anyway.” Tee-Tot’s son Henderson Payne, meantime, recounted that Hank wanted to learn how to play the blues from Tee-Tot, but Tee-Tot himself actually wanted to make money playing hillbilly music.
Hank couldn’t read or write in musical notation. According to Hank, “All the music training I ever had was from him.”
When Hank was in Greenville for a homecoming event in 1951, he reportedly went in search of his old teacher.
But Tee-Tot had died in a charity hospital in March 1939. On the death certificate, his profession was listed as “unknown.”
For all of his greatness, I do not think that we can call Hank Williams the very best of singers, or even the very best of mythmakers. Maybe Dylan was right and he was the very best of songwriters, but there’s plenty of competition, and at least in songs he wrote for others, he penned some duds. As a guitar player, he was nothing all that special. He sang with passion and force; he could conjure a devastating void in his spare atmospherics; he had a knack for sneaking the boogie in even as he kept in touch with the buttoned-up traditionalism of his hero Roy Acuff. But all of this can be said of others, too.
I can try to tell you what it was that made the songs of Hiram Williams into the genius of Hank, but I cannot quite make it out.
If you can bear with me, here is the baseball writer Bill James on my favorite baseball player ever, Pedro Martinez:
Seven factorial—that is, seven times six times five, etc.,—is 5,040. Ten is not much larger than seven, but ten factorial is 3.6 million—seven hundred times larger…
I think of that in connection with Pedro. How can he be so much better than the other pitchers? His fastball is good, but there are 20 or 50 people in the league who throw just as hard. His curve isn’t better than anyone else’s, his control isn’t. But he is vastly better in toto because he has some additional factors—his ability to change his arm angle, his ability to change speeds on all of his pitches without losing control—which interact to make geometric combinations.
I am no music theorist, I just know the way these songs burrow into me. I just know the way it feels to sing them (I am the sort to sing along)—alone, or with my friends, or with my wife, or with my parents, or with my children. I can try to tell you what it was that made the songs of Hiram Williams into the genius of Hank, but I cannot quite make it out. As if I am peering through a window darkly stained. Angles, speeds, geometric combinations.
APHORISMS AND PROVERBS (2)
When you get to be a big success, folks have a habit of writing you and telling you their troubles—all kinds of troubles; if their husband dies and they’re left with eight starving kids they write, and if their sweetheart done them wrong they write, and if they feel sort of blue they write. I dunno, I reckon they think I’m something like the Red Cross.
Hank Williams, 1951
My daddy, he was somewhere between God and John Wayne.
Hank Williams Jr., 1999
THE CONGREGATION FOR THE CAUSES OF SAINTS
The hillbillier-than-thou types—never fully hillbillies themselves, it seems—looked askance at Shania Twain when she arrived on the scene; same, even more puzzlingly, with Gillian Welch. If Hank was here, they’d say. When country purists are into their cups, they are always proclaiming that the man is rolling in his grave. He is a judgmental ghost, in their reckoning. He is the King of Country, but it might be more apt to call him the Father. But that would make Hank Jr. the Son of Country. That seems off, doesn’t it? To be generous to the purists and the trads, a genre needs an ideal, even if to bend and break it. It could only be Hank in part because he died young. He drank and he drank, and he was lonesome sometimes, and he sang country songs that felt old as soon as they were new. He is fixed, forever—that clean face, those big country ears, the cowboy hat.
Roy Acuff came before him, and Jimmie Rodgers before that. The voice and visage of Johnny, and Willie too, are perhaps even more immediately recognizable and iconic now—surely more famous. Dolly is a kind of goddess. George Jones the platonic form, the Carter Family the royal line. Dig deeper still, and as Hank learned from Tee-Tot, Bill Monroe learned from Arnold Shultz, and Lesley Riddle scouted songs for the Carter Family. The names of countless other forebears have been lost.
Nowadays, the music of Hank’s son, in my experience, gets played more than his own when country boys drink beer in the back of pickup trucks in a big old field in the middle of nowhere at all. Townes and the Flatlanders and Kris were cosmic poets, too. Tanya had the voice that felt closest to the Spirit, ever since she was thirteen years old. Merle and Waylon had the wild redneck edge in their bloody souls. Loretta, too, in her own way. Charlie Daniels, Charlie Rich, Charley Pride. Kitty, Patsy, Tammy. Conway, Buck, Marty. Just the names are a constellation.
My tastes lean toward country music made before I was born, but there are people on the radio now that my grandchildren may revere as I revere Hank. Part of the country genre’s very form is icons: reverence and tradition depend on kings and queens. There are so many, and there will be so many more.
And yet. Hank is the keeper, the watcher, the guardian. Country music had its roots in the Old Country, found its way to our acres of farmland and our hideaways in the mountains, mingled with the tunes and rhythms of people brought here in chains. It was of the South, an honor culture that disgraced itself—a peculiar place that could be unthinkably cruel and violent, but always had a soft heart for its own weirdos. Country music was saturated in cinema, which grew up alongside it, and the legend of the American West. Cowboys and gunslingers and whiskey and big empty sky. Country came of vaudeville and medicine shows, the church and the brothel, the hoedown and the family porch. It was born in a long, strange century, and Hank was there, and all he wanted to do was sing country songs. After three hundred thousand years or so of human beings trudging around and feeling sometimes scared and sometimes worried and sometimes lonesome, a particular manner of song came to be. And Hank heard that sound, and he knew that it was true. Forgive my blasphemy, but when it came to that particular manner of song, Hank Williams was the Alpha and the Omega. He left us records, and we play his music still: As sacred as the earth beneath our feet, a country of his own.
From letters to local newspapers in the wake of Hank’s death:
Hank Williams traveled with me on many a pleasant mile and sang for me many pleasant hours.…I feel I have actually lost a friend.
Alex E. Jones of Clarksville, Tennessee, to the Tennessean
We listened to the sad news and prayed that it was all a mistake, Hank. But there comes a time when reality tells us that our fears are real and that’s when we face the truth. There was no mistake; our beloved Hank was dead.
Retha Mae Brewer, 19, and Nettie Jean Brewer, 14, Hohenwald, Tennessee, to the Tennessean
Those of us who like and enjoy hillbilly-folk music…have lost a great friend.… So many of his songs so aptly expressed the loneliness, disappointment and hardship so many of us at one time endure.
Letter to Montgomery Advertiser
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Marilynne Robinson wrote that “in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations”:
I think it is correct to regard the West as a moment in a history much larger than its own. My grandparents and people like them had a picture in their houses of a stag on a cliff, admiring a radiant moon, or a maiden in classical draperies, on the same cliff, admiring the same moon. It was a specimen of decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare.
In modern culture these are seen as pathologies—alienation and inauthenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States. At present, they seem to flourish only in vernacular forms, country-and-western music being one of these. The moon has gone behind a cloud, and I’m so lonesome I could die.
Hank was country, but he was no cowboy—he came from lumber towns and spent his teenage years and adulthood in cities. His music was hillbilly through and through, with hardly a hint of Western swing (“longhair crap,” he called it). But he clearly had a hankering for the myth of the West. He loved Western movies as a boy. He named his backing band the Drifting Cowboys. He collected, wore, and sold Western clothes. And he conjured a Western atmospherics for his downhome songs. This became the vernacular of country music, so deeply ingrained that it is hard to imagine it any other way: The horror and the possibility and the glory of the frontier, the beckoning of vast sky and wide open country. It is in large part fiction, this dusty vision of America, but the story is so vivid that it might as well be real, with an eager audience far from the South and far from the West—a fishing town in Maine, an army base in Germany, a dairy farm in the Midwest, the highway stretching before a trucker on the long haul.
THE WAY HANK DOES
“My brothers and I weren’t used to anyone that country,” Vic Willis, a member of the Oklahoma Wranglers, a Western swing band that backed Hank on an early recording session, told the Hank biographer Colin Escott. On “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul,” the band was supposed to join in, but they sang “poor wicked soul” while Hank kept singing “purr wicked soul.” Finally, the producer said, “Damnit, Wranglers, sing it the way Hank does.”
THE MOON JUST WENT BEHIND THE CLOUDS
How is it that “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the perfect song? Let’s assume that the reasons are endless, but here is one—Hank had an ear for taking the familiar motifs of country music and transfiguring them. The song is cozy and soulful, but it’s bent. No one will agree with me if I say that Hank was psychedelic, but I know what I mean.
A second reason: Hank had an insight, or an intuition, whether or not he would voice it quite this way, that would shape country music forever. It was an insight best expressed, it turns out, with twang and steel guitar and fearsome warbling through the nasal passage. (This would get a little lost, later, in the smothering schmaltz of the Nashville Sound, but not yet.) Here is what Hank knew, somehow: The human experience of loneliness is cosmic. It is not narcissistic; it is where the Holy Spirit dwells. The universe, like the West, is mostly empty space.
Less than a week after I got the assignment to write this story, my father passed away. On the plane, I was listening to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” partly because of the assignment, but also partly because it is a comfort to me, a lullaby I sing to my children and to myself. Hank in his groove riffing on classic themes: trains, birdsong, the night sky, unipolar depression. Cowboy stuff. It sounds like a murder ballad, but there’s no one else there. Which makes it a suicide ballad, I suppose. It is so brittle, somehow, so fragile. Has there ever been a song as haunted by a silence implied? The melody seems to reverberate in a void space, the words echoing in a lacuna.
The day after my father died, I held his cold hand and I kissed his cold forehead and I lingered with the knowledge that his absence was now a presence. That his otherness would now be a memory. I took his wedding ring and put it in my pocket. He was the only man I knew my entire life. I had never thought of that before. I understood that I would wear this new lack like a necklace. My father was, I think, an atheist—or maybe a pragmatic agnostic. I have no good news to spread on that front, other than this: The brand-new lonesomeness at his passing felt like nothing so much as a presence.
Somewhere on the planet, far from the hospice, I reckoned that the silence of a falling star lit up a purple sky. I am a loud singer, but I sang softly to my father: “And as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome, I could cry.”
BUT I DON’T THINK HANK DONE IT THIS WAY
The anxiety of influence has a nearly moral component in country music. As Waylon sang, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?”
Hank biographer Paul Hemphill’s dad asked him whether his new Chevy Blazer had a radio that would pick up country music.
“Of course it will,” he told his dad.
“Must be a hell of a radio, then,” his dad said. “Ain’t been no country music since Hank died.”
UNTIL I’M PETRIFIED
When he was around eleven years old, Hank started drinking. He kept drinking.
Moonshine sold around Georgiana could be had for about thirty-five to seventy-five cents a pint. But Hank’s move was to wait for upstanding Baptist grownups to hide their stash in the bushes. Hank would get a nip here and there, wherever he could.
His aura in the country music pantheon is so stately, his songs are so beautiful, that it is hard to countenance, but he was a bad drunk. Not just outlaw drunk, not just rowdy-friend drunk. “You don’t know ol’ Hank. Hank don’t just have one beer.” He’d get ornery, then reckless, then he’d start falling, then he’d come to in the jailhouse. But I guess it’s all the same: Booze is Romantic until it’s not.
At least a couple of times, he allegedly shot his pistol at or near his wife Audrey, widely assumed to be the villain in his lovesick anthems. Once, according to June Carter, the young Carter family singer and future wife of Johnny Cash, Hank nearly killed June when she was with the couple in their driveway. He took a shot and the bullet whizzed right by her head. When June fell to the ground in fear, Audrey screamed that Hank had killed her. He drove away. “I realized he really was crazy,” June said later, adding, “We knew he was going to die, and he was going to die soon.”
Maybe no one really knew Hank Williams—read the various biographies of him and that’s a recurring theme. But plenty of people knew how he acted when he had too much to drink, and that includes plenty of stories about violence—including violent behavior toward the women he loved—that, if true, is hard to forgive. When he sang about whatever deep harm was within him, it spoke to people through radio transmissions or jukeboxes, and it was like he was a friend, putting his hand softly on the chest of all of us who have our own aches, which is all of us. Then later on cassettes, CDs, streams—he is still this friend to the lonesome.
I am not here to knock down any statues, just here to tell you the truth, as best as I can make it out from an imperfect record: When the man who sang these songs lived, and started drinking to cool whatever deep harm was within him, he could be a monster.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MINNIE PEARL
On the first time she met him: “The man looked like he was down on his luck. He was wearing a tan suit, boots and a cowboy hat that was slightly soiled. He was tall, thin—terribly thin—and hollow-eyed.”
On Hank at his peak: “He was the biggest thing country music had ever seen, and the fans absolutely adored him. His charisma on stage was unsurpassed. Elvis later had that effect on an audience, but in the beginning most of his fans were teenage girls who responded to his gyrations as much as to his music. Hank appealed to all ages, and both sexes, and he didn’t have to move a finger.”
On his mama: “He told us he used to get into a lot of honky-tonk brawls when he was still a kid living at home. One night a guy beat him up so badly he was left for dead in a roadhouse parking lot. A cab driver had been called by someone else, and when he pulled in to pick up his fare the headlights hit Hank, lying there unconscious in a pool of blood. The cabbie recognized him and took him home to his mother. She looked at his wounds, then said, ‘First we get you sewed up; then we go get him.’”
On the end: “I was trying to think of anything that would take his mind off whiskey, so I said, ‘Come on, Hank. Let’s sing.’ I started singing ‘I Saw the Light,’ a gospel song he had written several years earlier. He joined in, his voice cracking and off-key, then suddenly he stopped and looked at me. He put his hand on mine and said, ‘That’s just it, Minnie. There ain’t no light. It’s all dark.’”
And after the end: “Over the years he has been immortalized and is now considered a legend in our business. He would have found that amusing. He was just a regular funny ole boy raised in Alabama, as down to earth as dirt. But he had that awesome talent.”
Opry star Johnnie Wright estimated that even in the best of times, Hank would either fail to show up or show up too drunk to give much of a show about fifteen percent of the time. When things got worse, it was about half the time. The treatment of alcoholism as a disease was then in its infancy. Many of the people close to Hank would have thought it was just weakness, or a failure to get right with the Lord. There were no fancy treatment centers. He was in and out of sanatoriums and jailhouses throughout his period of stardom. His handlers were more likely to give him an upper and shove him on stage than try to slow him down.
He was no doubt in part medicating for the brutal pain in his back, and the rabidly tumultuous relationships he had with the women in his life: his first wife Audrey, his mother, and nineteen-year-old Billie Jean, who he married onstage in New Orleans to create a money-making show if it, less than three months before he died. He had spinal surgery at Vanderbilt in 1951. The pain continued. He became incontinent. Nothing worked. He kept drinking and taking painkillers.
The “doctor” he believed in most was a quack, a con man with a fake license who prescribed him chloral hydrate, an extremely powerful sedative. Hank used to work the medicine shows, but this time he was the mark, hiring the con man on a three-hundred-dollar-a-week retainer. Chloral hydrate can be highly dangerous if taken with alcohol or beyond the normal dosage. Hank, of course, did both. It is also not to be taken with heart disease, which Hank likely had at this point (he may have even had a heart attack late in 1952). He was also taking morphine by injection. And who knows what else.
Toward the end of 1952, Hank had been sick for weeks with a flu, he was popping capsules of chloral hydrate, getting winded when he walked, running out of money, running out of chances. Hank had just lost his house in Nashville in his divorce and sold his farmhouse in nearby Franklin at a loss, but he was still dreaming and scheming in his narcotic fog, telling Billie Jean, “Hey, baby, let’s us move to Nashville and buy one of them big houses.”
He had dates booked for New Year’s Eve in Charleston, West Virginia, and New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio, which he was in no shape to try to go to but did anyway. He hired a driver, seventeen-year-old Charles Carr, to take him from Montgomery to Charleston. According to Billie Jean, the night before he left, he told her, “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.” That morning, she asked if he was sick and he said, “No babe, ol’ Hank just wants to look at you one more time.”
A lot happened on the trip and it’s hard to make out what’s what: He had some liquor and maybe a morphine shot in Montgomery before they left and bought a six-pack of Falstaff beer on their way out of town; might have had a few women stop by his hotel room in Birmingham; got a haircut, shave, and some whiskey in Fort Payne; perhaps had another morphine shot and got on a plane in Knoxville when he realized he wouldn’t make it to Charleston in time; the plane turned around and went back to Knoxville about an hour and a half into the flight because of bad weather and that night, Hank had to be carried by the porters into his room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville; then a doctor came to the hotel to give him two shots that likely contained morphine, to cure convulsive hiccups.
They kept driving, now heading to Canton for the New Year’s Day show. Somewhere around Blaine, Tennessee, their car was pulled over by the cops (for the second time on the trip). “He’s not dead is he?” the patrolman asked.
As they neared Oak Hill, West Virginia, early on New Year’s Day, Carr realized something was wrong. “I thought he was asleep,” Carr said. “I reached over and touched him. He was cold.” Hank Williams was pronounced dead around 7:00 A.M. The autopsy noted he had recently been badly beaten, and there was an unexplained welt on his head. But then Hank often had a lot of bumps and bruises. An inquest found no foul play. His quack doctor suspected suicide, that perhaps Hank charmed his way into enough barbiturates in Knoxville to end his life. The embalmer had trouble finding workable veins.
The very next day, H. B. Teeter was ready with a story in Nashville’s Tennessean. A few months prior, according to Teeter, Hank had told him: “I will never live long enough for you to write a story about me.”
Before he was buried, Hank’s mother had the morticians break his ankles so he could be laid to rest with his boots on.
A LETTER TO MY SON, OCTOBER 4, 2022
Once upon a time, Cosmo, was a man who went by Hank.
Son, I want to steer you clear of oblivion. It is so seductive—the way that if you turn up the volume loud enough, everything gets quiet. I want you to dance in the front row; I want you to be sweet. Anyway, you’ll be who you’ll be. It is the way of sons, to stumble and wobble into a future that is yours, not mine. May you live a long and wild life. We are of few days and full of trouble. You and me, all of us. When my time has come, will you and your sister sing to me, the way I once sang to you? What a righteous way to go, if I should be so lucky. I would die a happy man.
Once upon a time was a man who went by Hank. His daddy was gone when he was young. I can’t fathom it, you know? If I’m away from you for just a day, it feels like something is askew with the universe. Hank sang songs and then I sang them to you. Maybe you will sing them someday to your own child, maybe not. The future is yours, not mine.
Folktales favor bright lights that burn out too quickly. But you may find that there is so much light in the ordinary stretch of days.
APHORISMS AND PROVERBS (3)
Hank Williams wrote his life.
Rev. Henry Lyons at Hank Williams’s funeral, 1953
When I find a note that I like, I wanna hold it long as I can.
Hank Williams, 1948
NO MORE DARKNESS, NO MORE NIGHT
There is a woman in a car in America. She’s driving on the highway, lost again. And she’s listening to the radio. And there it is: “Move it on over, slide it on over.” Hank, who loved to play the ham, explained the supposed genesis of the song to the Montgomery Advertiser in 1948: “Well, I was just talkin’ to the dog. There ain’t a man livin’ who hasn’t talked to his dog. If he tells you he hasn’t you [best] not believe him anymore. I was just talkin’ to the dog.”
Move over little dog ’cause the big dog’s moving in. She takes an exit and heads in what feels like the right direction and turns on to a dirt road. She is even more lost, but something about the bounce in the song or the color of the sky commands her to go heavy on the gas and so she does. And there is dust everywhere, she cannot see. And it scares her, the way she cannot see, the way these imperceptible particles can form a blanket that blinds her. And then the dust dissipates, like breath, and there is nothing left but open road, nothing left but everything. Like saying goodbye to a ghost. Know what I mean?
Or it’s me, say, at the tail end of September, driving with my family, fleeing a storm, every song a reminder of my children and of my father, of what I have and what I’ve lost. And we’re listening to “I Saw the Light,” say. This one has a hokey origin story, too, though I don’t quite buy it: Supposedly Hank and company were on their way back from a dance in Fort Deposit, Alabama, Hank was passed out in the backseat, and someone saw the beacon light at the airport in Montgomery—“Hank, wake up, we’re nearly home. I just saw the light!” Then he wrote the song on the way home.
We’ll go honky-tonkin’, honky-tonkin’. What is it about Hank? I don’t know. The myth is solid stuff. But the songs, the ones I keep so close, are ghosts and dust. They are baffling medicine, as present as my breath.