Posted by: Jim Murphy, Member, Board of Directors
HANK WILLIAMS INTERNATIONAL SOC.
It will probably never be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone just
which day it was that Hank Williams breathed his last breath. Formal
documentation declares him deceased on January 1, 1953. Yet a porter or
two who carried Hank to his automobile on the early evening of December
31st, New Years Eve declared that he was dead when he left the Andrew
Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, TN. Officer Swan Kitts, a Tennessee State
Trooper, who stopped Hank's car on the Rutledge Pike and gave the teenage
driver a ticket, declared that the passenger in the back seat of the car
looked dead to him. If it were to ever be affirmed that Hank actually did
expire that night, before the midnight hour, it would add just another
event to a string of events that occurred during the Decembers in the
life of Hank Williams.
Beginning with the birth of Hank's father, Elonzo on Dec. 22,1891, to the
birth of his grandson, Shelton, Dec.12, 1972, December events dot the
landscape of his life. Hank was joined in wedlock to Audrey Shepard, a
beautiful young lady with a young daughter, Lycretia from a previous
marriage, on December 15, 1944 by the justice of the peace in Andulusia,
AL. His first significant 'professional' date (when you make money, son),
occurred around Christmas time in December 1937. It was at the Empire
Theater in Montgomery, AL that Hank's rendition of his "WPA Blues" at a
talent show rewarded him with a $15.00 prize, a hefty sum for one song
especially during the Depression. And yes, it was in December of 1946,
the 11th to be precise, that Hank Williams recorded for his first record
label, STERLING, based in New York City. Backed by the Willis Brothers,
performing then under the handle 'The Oklahoma Wranglers', he recorded
four of his own compositions. If you ever come across one of Hank's 78
RPM Sterling records from that December session, you'll see the artists
listed as "HANK WILLIAMS And The Country Boys". I suppose the Wranglers
were reluctant to be tied to an 'unknown'.
In 1948, a musicians' strike virtually shut down recording industry. The
strike that had kept the studios quiet until December finally came to an
end and Fred Rose wasted no time getting Hank back into the studio. As
the session was approaching its end, with time remaining for one more
song, Hank suggested his big crowd pleaser, "Lovesick Blues". Mr. Rose
recoiled from the idea. 'Hank Williams resurrect an old Tin Pan Alley
tune? Not on your life'! Hank persisted. Fred resisted. Hank finally won
out. And so it was, on December 22, 1948, that Hank Williams recorded
"Lovesick Blues", the signature song with which he would forever be
associated, as the 'Lovesick Blues Boy".
As time rolled by, Hank would record some of his biggest hits during
sessions conducted in December. "Cold, Cold Heart" - December 21, 1950.
Included in this session were two of Hank's best Luke, The Drifter
releases, "Just Waiting" and "Men With Broken Hearts". A session on
December 11, 1951 produced "Honky Tonk Blues" and "Let's Turn Back the
Years". As you listen to the latter and hear the hurt in his voice, it's
real pain he's singing about. His back is so distressed from a childhood
precondition and from all the hundreds of thousands of miles on the road,
that two days later, December 13th, he went under the scalpel at
Vanderbilt University Hospital. spinal fusion surgery. Take a moment to
imagine the state of the art of spinal fusion surgery in 1951. By the end
of that year Hank was in so much pain, physically and emotionally, that
he would survive for just one more.
December 1952 found Hank with renewed hope that he would soon be back on
the Grand Ole Opry. He was touring with the Louisiana Hayride troupe and
had been booked for major engagements on New Years Eve and New Years Day.
Contact with the power brokers in Nashville had been re-established and
it looked like a bit of sunshine was beginning to appear between the
clouds. On December 13, Hank made his final appearance on the Hayride.
The next day he left Louisiana for a one-week tour of dates in Texas and
Mississippi. Hank played Biloxi, Ms. on the 15th and Stark's Skyline Club
in Austin, TX on the 19th. The late Jimmy Day, a member of the Steel
Guitar Players' Hall of Fame, rode with Hank on that last tour and
remarked how well Hank was singing and anticipating a brighter 1953. As
Hank played out his two sets at the Skyline Club to a packed house, it
appeared that he was truly going to make it. But the tired, worn out body
was just about to break down. His mother took him back home to Montgomery
to get over a feverish flu and to build him up for his return to the big
time. A New Years Eve show in Charleston, WVA and a New Years Day date in
Canton, OH would set the stage for Hank's return to the Opry. But, as he
was known to say on occasion, "No matter how I struggle and strive.
nothin's ever gonna be alright no-how."
Somewhere between 7:30PM in Knoxville, TN on December 31, 1952 and 6:30AM
in Oak Hill, WVA on January 1,1953 the life of Hank Williams came to an
end. Somewhere along that long and lonesome highway a life gave way to
the birth of a legend. Something in a long, tall, 29 year old country boy
from rural Alabama touched the heart of a nation as the announcement of
his death rattled over teletype machines that first day of a new year.
Fifty years have come and gone since that day, and his music is still as
vibrant, as was the life that inspired the lyrics. The Cause of Death
listed on the Death Certificate of Hank Williams reads, "Acute rt.
ventricular dilation". A doctor once told me that, loosely translated, he
died of 'a broken heart'.
The following is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Hank Williams' Last Ride:
Driver Recalls Lonesome End
By JIM THARPE (12-30-02) MONTGOMERY -Just before sunrise on New Year's Day 50 years ago, a
sleek baby-blue Cadillac roared up to the rural Oak Hill, W.Va.,
hospital in the cold Appalachian darkness. The driver was just 17,
exhausted and scared. The passenger was barely 29 and dead.
At the wheel was Charles Carr, a college freshman on Christmas break
from Auburn. The man in the back seat was singer-songwriter Hank
"I ran in and explained my situation to the two interns who were in the
hospital," said Carr, now a 67-year-old Montgomery businessman. "They
came out and looked at Hank and said, 'He's dead.'
"I asked 'em, 'Can't you do something to revive him?' One of them looked
at me and said, 'No, he's just dead.'"
It was a last ride that would help define American music and pop culture
for decades to come.
Long before there was Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain --
self-destructive stars who flamed out at their zenith -- there was Hiram
"Hank" Williams, a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges Alabama country
boy who wrote simple, heart-tugging songs about loneliness and then,
still young, died alone in the back seat of his car.
The last hours of his troubled life long ago passed from reality to
myth. Biographers have breathlessly speculated about what really
happened. Officials have issued sketchy reports that only increased the
mystery. Songwriters and playwrights still rhapsodize about it. An
off-Broadway play, "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" is currently running in
New York. A Web site dedicated to Williams estimates that more than 700
songs have been written about the singer, whose own recording career
lasted only five years.
But only Carr knows the truth about those final hours. For years, he
avoided most requests for interviews. But in recent years, he has begun
to talk, trying to set the record straight.
He thinks Williams died -- the official cause was heart failure --
somewhere between Bristol, Tenn., and Oak Hill on the way to a New
Year's Day 1953 show in Canton, Ohio.
"I'm certainly not an authority on Hank Williams," said Carr. "But I'm
the only authority on Hank Williams' death."
Some biographies have speculated that Williams died at a Knoxville hotel
and that porters unwittingly placed his corpse in his car for the trip
north. Still others have him dying on the road with an unfinished song
in his hands, bedroom slippers on his feet and a pint of vodka in his
All bunk, retorts Carr, who maintains Williams was very much alive and
wearing white cowboy boots, a stylish blue overcoat and a white fedora
when he left Knoxville at 10:45 p.m. New Year's Eve en route to a
concert 500 snowy miles north.
"The story seems to get better as every year goes by," said Carr. "But
Hank's life doesn't need to have anything added to it. It was
sensational enough as it was."
But by the time Carr got behind the wheel of Williams' ragtop Cadillac
on Dec. 30, 1952, the troubadour's life was in a full-tilt meltdown. He
was divorced from his first wife, Audrey. Though remarried, he was
staying at his mother's downtown Montgomery boardinghouse, having been
demoted from the Grand Ole Opry to the Louisiana Hayride, the farm team
of country music. He was taking morphine shots for constant back pain
after major surgery the year before (he suffered from spina bifida),
ingesting a dangerous sedative, chloral hydrate, to sleep and playing
the same backwater clubs he'd escaped just a few years earlier.
Williams knew Carr's father, who ran a Montgomery taxi service, and the
teenager was asked to drive an obviously ailing Williams to gigs in
Charleston, W.Va., and Canton, major concert dates that Williams hoped
would be the start of a comeback.
"Dad was a friend of Hank's and tried to look out after him in the tough
times," Carr said. "He was there talking with dad and Hank asked me if
I'd be interested in making the trip."
It was a journey that seemed doomed from the start.
By the time Carr helped Williams load his guitars and stage suits into
the car trunk, the weather across much of the South was deteriorating.
Rain was turning to ice and snow.
Carr recalls the 6'2" Williams was sick and frail at the time, weighing
perhaps 130 pounds, but disputes reports that the singer, long a heavy
drinker, was guzzling booze most of the trip.
"He had a very low tolerance for alcohol at that point," Carr said. "We
bought a six-pack of Falstaff [beer] in Montgomery before we left, and
there were several cans left when he died."
A rudimentary autopsy found Williams had traces of alcohol in his blood
when he died, but it found no drugs, although it's unclear if
pathologists tested for them.
Carr remembers Williams being in good spirits as the trip began. They
told jokes, sang songs and traded tales as they navigated the two-lane
highways of the pre-interstate South.
"Hank's song 'Jambalaya' was just out on the radio and he asked me what
I thought of it," Carr recalled. "I told him I didn't care for it, that
it didn't make a bit of sense to me. Hank laughed and said, 'You son of
a bitch, you just understand the French like I do.'
"We were just a couple of young guys on a car trip having fun."
They spent the night at a hotel in Birmingham and got an early start on
New Year's Eve as the weather continued to worsen. Carr remembers
Williams buying a pint of bonded bourbon in Fort Payne, Ala. He also
made one waiter very happy.
"He walked up to our server at a restaurant we ate at and said, 'Here's
the biggest tip you ever got.' And he gave him $50. Money didn't mean
anything to Hank."
It was snowing by the time they reached Chattanooga, and Williams
decided to try to catch a flight from Knoxville to make the Charleston
show on time. The flight took off at 3:30 p.m., but was turned back due
to the bad weather, so they found themselves stuck in Knoxville for the
night. The Charleston show was a bust, but they still hoped to make
Carr got them a room at the 17-story Andrew Johnson Hotel and they
checked in about 7 p.m. to wait out the storm.
"We talked a while and ordered dinner up in the room," Carr said. "As I
remember, Hank didn't eat much of anything. He had the hiccups real
Carr called a doctor, who came and gave Williams two injections -- later
determined to be morphine mixed with vitamin B12.
"He calmed down after that, but looking back, maybe the hiccups or the
indigestion could have been the beginning of a coronary," Carr said.
Williams dozed off fully clothed, but about 10:30 p.m., Carr got a call
from the concert promoter telling him they had to leave right away and
drive through the night to make the Canton show.
"There was some kind of penalty clause in his contract . . . so we had
to be there for the New Year's Day concert or else," Carr said.
"When we left the room, they sent a wheelchair," Carr said. "They rolled
him down to the car and Hank got in on his own. I clearly remember
Carr said there was little traffic as they pulled out of Knoxville.
"What traffic you did see was moving at a slow pace because the roads
were so bad," Carr said. "We were trying to push it but we didn't have
Carr got a ticket about an hour later in Blaine, Tenn., when he almost
ran into a patrolman while trying to pass another car. He paid a fine
and got back behind the wheel with Williams asleep in the back. It was
after midnight by this time -- already New Year's Day -- and Carr had
been behind the wheel since early that morning.
The teenager stopped in a small town to gas up and get a bite to eat.
Carr said it could have been Bristol, Tenn., about 120 miles northeast
of Knoxville, or it could have been Bluefield, a town in West Virginia.
It was dark and he was bone-tired in unfamiliar territory. He
specifically remembers a service station on one side of the highway and
a diner and a cab stand on the other. He pulled in to gas up.
"I remember Hank got out to stretch his legs and I asked him if he
wanted a sandwich or something," Carr said. "And he said, 'No, I just
want to get some sleep.'
"I don't know if that's the last thing he said. But it's the last thing
I remember him telling me."
At the cab stand, Carr picked up a relief driver who helped him drive
for a few hours before getting out somewhere in rural West Virginia.
Carr drove on, but became increasingly concerned about the eerie silence
in the back seat. He pulled off the road to check on Williams, who was
lying with his head toward the passenger seat and had his left hand
across his chest.
"He had his blue overcoat on and had a blanket over him that had fallen
off," Carr said. "I reached back to put the blanket back over him and I
felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm."
Carr pulled into the next service station he saw and told the owner he
needed to get to a hospital fast. The man pointed the way, and Carr
remembers seeing a road sign for Oak Hill, six miles away.
Revisiting the scene
On a bright December day a few weeks ago, Carr strolled through the Hank
Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery. He sat for a few minutes in the
driver's seat of the Cadillac he drove that night.
The overcoat that Williams was wearing is in a glass case nearby, as is
one of his pearl-handled pistols and the shoeshine kit he used as a boy
to help support his family.
Carr moved on after that long-ago brush with fame. He went back to
Auburn University, got a degree, served in the military, got married,
had kids and became a successful businessman. He now has a home in
Montgomery and a weekend lake house.
He has a framed poster for the concert that he and Williams never got
to, and he keeps a pair of cowhide gloves the singer gave him on that
He'll attend a New Year's Day memorial service for Williams at his
much-visited grave in Montgomery's Oakwood Cemetery annex. A few
surviving members of Williams' "Drifting Cowboys" band will be there as
well, if they are able to make it. They are old men now, some in their
"But I'm not going to make a day of it," Carr said. "I just want to
A visitor observes that Carr has survived the years about as well as the
old Cadillac, which has been immaculately restored. Carr laughs at the
"No, no," he said. "I'm an old man. But Hank Williams never had to worry
about that. He'll always be young to me."
Retracing a Ghostly Night Ride
By PETER COOPER Staff Writer The Tennessean 01/01/03 -
Hank Williams' life ended 50 years ago today, but details of his last hours are still
Look for the ghost of Hank Williams at Edd's Grocery in Corryton, Tenn., and all
you'll find is yo-yo wax, cigarettes and panty hose boxes from the disco era.
Might as well comb the nearest beachfront for hockey pucks.
But the well-scuffed little store is a landmark of sorts. It's a U.S. Highway 11W
slow-down point, a 66-year-old relic that's positioned just to the Knoxville
side of what used to be the Skyway Drive-In Theater.
Fifty years ago, a pale blue Cadillac carrying a similarly hued, 29-year-old Hiram "Hank"
Williams sped north from Knoxville, right past Edd's.
The Skyway - now intimated by a rusted sign in a weed-happy field where locals toss
garbage - marks the place where a patrol officer stopped Williams' driver, a 17-year-old
Auburn University freshman named Charles Carr. The officer, Swan H. Kitts, ticketed
Carr for speeding and driving recklessly. To this day, Carr denies the charges.
Either way, the man now viewed as country music's single greatest, most important
and most legendary performer lay motionless through the hubbub. As Dec. 31, 1952,
passed silently into the new year, Williams may have already passed, as well.
Hank Williams died in Knoxville or Bristol or Mount Hope, W.Va., or any number of
other places. Maybe it was within a couple of miles from where the Daddy Owes Pool
Hall now stands in Bean Station, Tenn., or right around where you'll see Hillbilly
Auto Sales in Ghent, W.Va.
The only place he surely didn't die along twisted 11W or desolate 19 North is
the place listed on his death certificate: the West Virginia town of Oak Hill.
"What difference does it make?" snaps Dr. Stuart McGehee, a historian at Bluefield,
W.Va.'s Eastern Regional Coal Archives. "What does it possibly matter, other than
to satisfy the obsessive people who want to know exactly where did he draw his
Maybe the death spot doesn't matter, but the route does. Jan. 1 signifies
a new year and commemorates an old, never-to-be-healed wounding.
And while Williams' native Alabama boasts its own Hank Williams Memorial Lost
Highway, there is no more sorrow-bound succession than Knoxville to Blaine to
Bristol to Bluefield to Princeton to Mount Hope to Oak Hill, with only The
Complete Hank Williams boxed set for company.
"It's a tough drive, I promise you that," said Carr, who only drove it
once, when he had Hank Williams for cargo if not for company. "If I had
known what was going to happen, I would not have made the trip."
Stop to snap a photo of the old Skyway sign, step through brush and over
a toppled toilet to get back to the car and listen to Hank sing Leon Payne's
words: "And now I'm lost/ Too late to pray."
It's a spooky deal for sure, and not at all like a trip to Graceland.
I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'
The latter part of 1952 was a strange and not altogether pleasant time to be
The expiring year had brought divorce from first wife Audrey; an affair with
a woman named Bobbie Jett, who became pregnant with a girl who became singer
Jett Williams; the recordings of now-classics including Jambalaya, You Win Again,
Kaw-Liga and Your Cheatin' Heart; his firing from the Grand Ole Opry;
a marriage to the former Billie Jean Jones Eshliman; a continuation of
physical frailties including persistent and sometimes debilitating back pain;
more than enough pills and booze to derail stronger, stouter men; and a health-related
leave of absence from the Louisiana Hayride radio show.
Williams ended the year as country music's best-selling artist, but he hoped
1953 would bring comparative peace and calm. He had moved from stressful
Nashville in August, first returning home to Montgomery, Ala., then taking
an apartment in Shreveport, La., and relocating again to Montgomery.
With a Dec. 31 show booked in Charleston, W.Va., and a gig the next day in
Canton, Ohio, Williams stopped on Dec. 29 to see old friend Daniel Pitts Carr
at Carr's Lee Street Taxi Co. It was a place of comfort and familiarity,
and Hank liked to drink there.
"I had known Hank most of my life," said Charles Carr, now a 67-year-old
Montgomery, Ala., businessman. "My dad looked after him before he became a
star, and Hank never forgot that."
Charles agreed to chauffer Williams to the concerts in exchange for money that
would help with the next semester's tuition. On Dec. 30, after Williams took
a shot of morphine to ease his back pain, the young man and the country superstar
drove off in Hank's conspicuous 1952 Cadillac.
Also because of his back pain, Williams was carrying chloral hydrate, a drug
intended to induce sleep. Chloral hydrate can slow the heartbeat, and things can
get weird when the drug is combined with alcohol. In the movies, when a bad guy
puts someone to sleep by "slipping him a Mickey," chloral hydrate is what the
villain has placed in the victim's drink.
"A mixture of chloral hydrate, morphine and alcohol will more than likely bring
about psychosis," said Brian Turpen, a Bedford, Ind., police captain who has
conducted exhaustive research into Williams' death. "That combination is
sometimes used to euthanize critically ill patients."
The two travelers made it to Birmingham that night, and the next morning they
Planning to fly to Charleston, they boarded a 3:30 p.m. plane, but poor weather
conditions necessitated a boomerang flight. The fellows were back in Knoxville by
6 p.m., knowing that Williams wouldn't make his scheduled performance and
figuring there was a long drive involved in making the Canton show.
(Contrary to many reports, the problem with the Charleston airport was fog,
not snow. Many - even most - published accounts have Carr and Williams driving
through a perilous mix of snow and ice, but Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 newspapers
in Knoxville, Bluefield and Charleston reported no such precipitation.)
In Knoxville, Carr checked his man into the elegant Andrew Johnson Hotel, owned
by Mrs. R.J. Reynolds and known for its showy lobby and old-money clientele. By
then, a reasonably normal afternoon had become a lousy evening as Hank was back
to drinking. Convulsive hiccups necessitated a call to a doctor, and more morphine
(two shots, along with some vitamin B-12) soon surged through Williams' blood.
At some point, Hank fell to the hotel room floor.
Carr and Williams left the Andrew Johnson before 11 p.m., with the singer's
cognizance in question.
"Hank Williams stayed here after a performance, and it is rumored that he died
here in 1953," reads a passage in a notebook kept by the public affairs office
of the Knox County school system, now located in the old hotel. That rumor
stems from porters' reports that an otherwise somnambulant Williams emitted
two "coughing" sounds while being carried to his Cadillac. Dead men sometimes
make such sounds when being picked up.
But Carr is adamant that he spoke to Williams on a couple of occasions after
Knoxville, and the Oak Hill, W.Va., mortician who handled Williams' body says
the singer was neither cold nor stiff enough to have died in East Tennessee.
With no complaints from his rider, Carr pressed northward. Pulling out to pass -
right past Edd's, next to the Skyway Drive-In sign, and quite near the dividing
line between Knox and Grainger counties - he drew the notice of Officer Swan Kitts.
The officer pulled the Cadillac to the roadside. And for a half-century, Kitts has
told people that he noticed the zonked-out Williams in the back seat, asked Carr
whether the singer was dead and received assurance that Hank was under sedation,
had been drinking and was certainly alive.
Kitts later came to believe that Hank had indeed died before the stop,
an opinion that still angers Carr.
"Hank was asleep," Carr said. "If he was dead, what was this officer
doing letting a 17-year-old ride around with a corpse?"
The Cadillac followed Kitts to the house of a justice of the peace in Blaine,
where Carr says he answered "$75" when asked how much money he was carrying.
"You want to know what the fine was?" he said. "You guessed it: $75. In the police
report, it said I was fined $25. I wonder what happened with that extra $50?"
All parties were made aware that Williams - the celebrated hillbilly performer -
was in the back of the Caddy. Yet neither Kitts nor anyone else checked for a pulse.
Bristol to butcher shop.
Ask around in the border city of Bristol, and someone will point you to the Burger
Bar and tell you that's where Hank Williams ate his last meal.
But Williams' last meal was a few bites of steak at the Andrew Johnson Hotel,
and he and Carr never stopped at the Burger Bar. There was no Burger Bar:
In the early 1950s, the building housed a dry cleaners.
Carr did stop, however, at the corner of Moore and Sycamore streets, where he says
he spoke briefly with a groggy Williams, bought some gas and bought a sandwich at
Trayer's Restaurant, a few blocks from the spot where Jimmie Rodgers and The
Carter Family recorded the 1927 "Bristol Sessions" that helped give rise to
the commercial country music industry.
In Bristol, Williams might have taken a couple of the chloral hydrate pills
that he had stashed for the trip and washed them down with Falstaff beer:
bottles were later found on the Cadillac's floorboard.
Some historians believe Carr obtained a relief driver, Donald Surface, in Bristol.
But Carr recalls that pickup as having occurred several hours up the road, in
Bluefield, W.Va. Surface hailed from Bluefield and worked at the Bluefield Cab Co.,
so Bristol would seem an odd embarkation spot.
Between Bristol and Bluefield, 11W falls away in favor of 19 North, and
curves begin to sharpen as the elevation increases. Even when the road is
clear, filthy snow hugs the winter shoulders. Pop Williams' songs into a
car stereo CD player, and his sorghum-and-razor-blades voice is poorly
matched to the area's ice and stone.
If Williams was still alive after Bristol, his body was under internal attack.
He needed a doctor, and not for another morphine shot. Instead, he got as smooth
a ride as could be had over that terrain, as the Cadillac rolled on through the
dark early morning.
Bluefield was then a bustling coal town, and the Dough Boy Lunch was open all
night. Carr remembers getting a sandwich and a Coke at what was likely the Dough Boy,
then speaking to a cab company dispatcher who offered Donald Surface's services.
In today's Bluefield, the Dough Boy has been razed, as has the Cab Co. building. One
other potential landmark, the Bluefield Sanitarium, has been torn down as well: At
least one published report has Carr seeking a doctor in Bluefield at the sanitarium,
trying unsuccessfully to get yet another shot for Hank.
Today, Carr says Williams was awake in Bluefield but that there was no sanitarium
"The only doctor he saw was at the hotel in Knoxville," he said.
Williams' death is regarded as one of country music's defining moments, yet
the Bluefield newspaper - like many others - didn't find the news terribly
important. On Jan. 2's front page, a story headlined "Voluntary Health
Insurance For Aged and Ill is Urged" was played higher and bolder than was
"Hank Williams, 29, dies."
Just up the road in Princeton, the blue Caddy stopped again, probably at the
Courthouse Lunch at 101 Alvis St. (it's now a bank). Carr could have let Surface
off here or Surface might have continued on the doomed journey, as Carr is simply
not sure what happened to the "relief driver." Surface himself died before the
matter was resolved to anyone's satisfaction.
The Cadillac wound higher north, over the Bluestone River, past farms and goats
and white birches that reached out as if to ensnare. The Bluestone's overpass
at Spanishburg, W.Va., is now called the Hank Williams Sr. Memorial Bridge,
and the Valley General Store next to it sells coffee for 35 cents.
Asked whether folks in Spanishburg ever talk of Hank Williams' last ride,
Valley patron Drema Hall said: "Very seldom. But if you want a story, I'll
give you a story: There's an all-girl butcher shop just up the road.
It's just women that work there."
I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
Algisa Bonifacio was, by her account, a silly teenager when Hank Williams' Cadillac
entered Mount Hope, W.Va. Bonifacio remains in the same place she says she was that
late-dawning morning: Behind the counter at Bon Bon's, a store along Mount Hope's
main drag, on what used to be Highway 19.
She insists that the Caddy stopped right across the street from her, that a
young driver came into Bon Bon's, and that she fixed him a lemon sour because he
said: a) He had Hank Williams in the car, b) Hank wasn't feeling well, and c)
Hank needed a drink. She knows that Williams was pronounced dead a few miles
down the road.
"Here's one for you," she said, passing a Styrofoam cup filled with the
sweet blend. "OK, don't die."
When passing through Mount Hope, Carr was monumentally exhausted and probably
quite worried about the well-being of his famous passenger, but today he is
certain he didn't stop at Bon Bon's.
Carr remembers continuing on toward Oak Hill, a town in which Hank had never
performed, never stayed and possibly never heard of, yet which would become
forever intertwined with the Hank Williams legend.
Somewhere between Mount Hope and Oak Hill, Carr says, he noticed that Williams'
blanket had slid off his frame.
The driver reached back and found Williams' hand cold and stiff. Carr says
this happened six miles from Oak Hill, at the side of the road. Investigating
officer Howard Janney reported that it happened in the Skyline Drive-In
restaurant's parking lot and that Carr talked to an employee at the Skyline.
Researcher Turpen thinks it may have been at one of several gas stations
closer to the heart of Mount Hope.
Wherever it was that Carr discovered Hank Williams had died, the
teenager soon checked with an attendant at what he describes as "a cut-rate
"There was a big heater across the glass front," Carr said. "A man at the
service station came out with me and looked in the back seat and said, 'I
think you've got a problem.' He was very kind, and said Oak Hill General
Hospital was six miles on my left."
Here, oral remembrance and accepted history diverge again. Numerous reports
have Carr driving to Oak Hill and pulling into Pete Burdette's Pure Oil station,
less than a quarter-mile from the hospital. Deputy Sheriff Janney recently
told a reporter with Goldenseal magazine that he and another officer (Orris
Stamey, now dead) came to Burdette's and saw the lifeless Williams and that Janney
then escorted the car down the street to the hospital.
"No, I drove straight to the hospital," Carr said. "Burdette's had nothing to
do with it. I went into the back of the hospital and two interns looked at Hank
and said, 'He's dead.' I said, 'Is there anything you can do for him?' They said,
'No, he's dead.' They took him, and they didn't use a stretcher. They put him on
an examining table."
"I called my dad and told him what happened, and then Hank's mother called me at
the hospital," Carr said. "One of the parting things she said was: 'Don't let
anything happen to the car.'
"So I gave the car keys to a law enforcement officer, and he pulled the car
across the street to the funeral home. After that, Burdette allowed us to put the
Cadillac in one of his bays at the Pure Oil station, so no one would mess with it."
61-6, or The Alabama Waltz
Enter Oak Hill today, and signs proclaim the town as the home of Marian McQuade,
the lady who founded National Grandparents' Day.
But the town's only true claim to fame is its permanent place in the Hank Williams
time line: "Born Sept. 17, 1923, Mt. Olive, Ala. Died Jan. 1, 1953, Oak Hill, W.Va."
In December 2002, the former Burdette's Pure Oil features a Santa's Workshop scene.
Pete Burdette is gone, having killed himself out back of the place, years after taking
Williams' cowboy hat from the car.
The hospital is still there, though it's undergone a makeover. And across from
Santa's Workshop is the old mortuary, though undertaker Joe Tyree has long since
moved his operation to another spot in town. But from the street, passers-by can
glimpse the window to the upstairs room where an autopsy was performed on Williams
and where Hank was prepared for his Alabama homecoming. The official cause of death
was heart failure.
"I don't think he died here in Oak Hill, or in this county," Tyree said. "But
he hadn't been dead for more than a couple of hours. I feel like he was alive in
Tyree said he never saw relief driver Donald Surface, who was mentioned
in police reports as being present in Oak Hill.
Awaiting the arrivals of his father and Hank's mother, Carr was alone in a very
strange place at a very bad time. He remains grateful to Tyree for comforting him.
"We tried to help Charles Carr, because he was in a peculiar situation," Tyree
said. "Charles was a nice young boy. We took him to an apartment at the funeral
home, and he stayed with our sons."
Tyree remembers that Carr watched New Year's Day football games at that apartment,
though Carr thinks he watched at an Oak Hill city council member's home. One
of those games was the Orange Bowl, in which Alabama defeated Syracuse, 61-6.
Across Alabama, folks cheered for the Crimson Tide. Many of the Tide backers didn't
yet know that one of the state's favorite sons lay still in West Virginia.
"Have you seen the pictures of him at the funeral?" Tyree said. "We put that outfit
on him, and we put him in that casket."
Leaving Oak Hill, a modern-day, Nashville-bound car can take one more snaky two-lane
highway out of town, then hop on the interstate and make it to big-city Charleston
within an hour. Then it's on to Huntington and down to Olive Hill, where a country
music fan can start considering the bucolic birthplace of Tom T. Hall and try to
stop dwelling on the hopeless final hours of Hank Williams.
Hank's death is shrouded in questions that are likely unanswerable, and the
ride from Knoxville to Oak Hill consequently spurs depth of feeling, not
breadth of knowledge.
Highway 11W to Highway 19 North was a pathetic, sad-sack end, but Williams'
legacy is as enduring as his life was transitory. Fifty years after he exited
that Cadillac, it seems likely that Cold, Cold Heart, Hey, Good Lookin',
Jambalaya and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry will be around, will be enjoyed,
will be alive even after Bean Station, Corryton and Mount Olive crumble to history.
Curse that road. Bless this music.
Photo courtesy: http://home.online.no/~smpeders/ind-han3.htm
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