Hank Williams

Just finished his biography.

Caught between a torment of a wife and a storm of a mother, with a spinal birth defect that created lifelong pain, an alcohol habit that grew ferocious, to which he and others then added pills of all kinds, and an unmerciful road schedule that pinned him to events every night for months and ground him out like a spent cigarette.

Hard to know which of all that played the biggest part in killing him.

And still he wrote, mostly while on the road. His songs defined country music and spoke simply to folks. He took their titles often from conversations. “You’re gonna change or I’m a gonna leave” “You win again” and others were lines he heard spoken.

He referred to himself often in the third person, as “Ole Hank.”

But he was only 29 when he died.

One beautiful character who emerges in his story is Ernest Tubb, a rock to whom Hank turned often during his constant marital problems with Audrey, whom Chet Flippo portrays as a conniving, money-grubbing plague on Williams’ life – not that Hank didn’t contribute to the disaster that was their marriage. Tubb was by contrast sober, wise, and had learned to manage the country music life in a way that Hank never did. 

So, too, an almost-was singer named Braxton Schuffert, who turned his back on the music business and devoted himself to his family back in Shreveport and his job delivering for Hormel Meats. Apparently a talented singer, Schuffert saw the life his friend was leading and didn’t want that for himself, though Hank was often urging him to move to Nashville, offering to get him on the Opry, plying him with songs he’d written. Sounds like Schuffert had a career waiting for him if he’d wanted it. Hank visited him every time he went to Shreveport and Schuffert seemed one of the few in Hank’s life who cared for the singer, but took him as a cautionary tale, no matter how big and famous he got.

The last few months of Hank’s life are painful to read. Constantly drunk or stoned, incontinent, weak and bone thin, plied pills and morphine by a quack ex-felon he hired as his personal physician, divorced from Audrey whom he still loved and hated, banned from the Grand Ole Opry, missing his son Bocephus, barely remembering the words to his own songs, on stage hanging onto a microphone stand, marrying a young country girl three times on the same day, twice in front of legion of paying fans, not remember any of it.

Clearly a man in need of serious addiction and pain treatment, both, and a long break from the road.

The incredible thing is during those last months he wrote Your Cheatin’ HeartJambalayaSettin’ the Woods on Fire and I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive– each one a country classic. It’s not even clear he ever performed Your Cheatin’ Heart live.

He was dying for days before he passed, which he did on New Year’s Eve, 1952 in a Cadillac taking him to a show in Canton, OH. He was only discovered so by his driver, who stopped in Oak Hill, WV, lost and unsure which highway to take to Ohio.

In the back seat lay Hank Williams, cold to the touch. In his hand was a slip of paper with a shard of a song that he composed, likely to his ex-wife, minutes before he died.

“We met, we lived, and dear we loved, then comes that fatal day, the love that felt so dear fades far away.

 Tonight one hathe one alone and lonesome, all that I could sing. I you (sic) you still, and always will, but that’s the poison we have to pay.”

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7 Responses to Hank Williams

  1. Julie Pipes

    Because of you, I will be buying and reading this book. As someone who is completely ignorant of country music, I had no idea that he died so young. Thank you for the suggestion!

  2. Judy King

    Thanks Sam. I knew he led a troubled life, I had no idea… Thanks for bringing this book to our attention… I don’t usually choose biographies but this sounds like one I need to read.

    Judy King
    Judykinginmexico@gmail.com

  3. David M Hertz

    Sam, Glad to see this. I was a good friend of your dad’s and I’d like to chat with you at some point. Some friends of mine from the NEH Council in Washington just gathered to read some of his excellent poetry. Wonderful language. Very moving. I thought your obit was excellent and my NEH friend and I have sent it to various people we know.

    • samquinones

      David — actually i’ll be speaking in Bloomington in May – may 20. Happy to see if we can find some time to chat. we’ll have a memorial for him at CMC on April 7, if you’re around.

      we’re also talking about trying to publish his poetry in a hardback single volume….let me know which poems you’d like to see included….Sam

  4. Powerful stuff, Sam. I knew some of it, but not all.

    He died a few months before I was born – in Nashville, no less. Surreal to read that and to realize the connections to my father, who covered the Grand Ole Opry for the Tennesseean.

    Thanks for the piece — and for your continued writing.

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