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  Death of a Legend

Hank Williams' Knoxville demise surrounded by mystery half a century later

by Jack Neely

The death of Hank Williams has become an American legend. Everyone knows he was one of the largest figures in the history of country music, but country music really isn't big enough to contain him. He may not have lived to hear the phrase "rock 'n' roll," but some of his stuff sounds like it. Some of his music was blues, or gospel, with even an old minstrel-show song thrown in here or there. Even while he was still alive, jazz artists and pop crooners were interpreting his music. The last hit he ever knew about had zydeco flavorings. Bob Dylan called him his favorite songwriter; Leonard Cohen wrote a song about him.

Moreover, he changed the pop-music paradigm. Before Hank Williams, professional singers on the radio were about as likely to write their own songs as they were to tailor their double-breasted suits. Songwriters were guys with ties and thick glasses who worked in offices in Manhattan. No one before Hank Williams had been as popular as a guitarist/singer/songwriter, which for the next half century became the standard in several varieties of American popular music.

If he had not died at 29, but had merely retired, and lived to the age of 79, Hank would still be considered a major figure in the development of American pop culture. He would still have his plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. But his early death gives him something extra unknown to his contemporaries. To die young, and, moreover, to die mysteriously, lends an aura of religion never accorded to influential figures allowed to live full-length natural lives. Fate allowed him to remain forever young, and an icon to each new generation. He still has an authority with youthful musicians that can only be envied by his contemporaries: the ones who didn't die young, who got chubby and wore hairpieces and worked the Branson/Pigeon Forge circuit and did a lot of chuckling on TNN talk shows.

Hank Williams' death, or his ghost, is the subject of countless country songs. (Someone once tried to count them all, and had to stop in the 700s.) There's a Broadway play called The Night Hank Williams Died, which got a good deal of attention in the national press in the 1980s, though the play isn't about either Hank Williams or the night he died. A bus tour, which included some musicians in Hank's old band, retraced his last route through Knoxville about four years ago, playing an impromptu tribute concert in Krutch Park.

And, of course, it's the climax of several major biographies, especially the 1994 book, Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott (who followed it with a fascinating photographic book in 2001, called Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway); Still in Love With You, a 1989 biography by his stepdaughter, Lycrecia Williams; and sometime-Knoxvillian Chet Flippo's earlier biography, Your Cheatin' Heart. Plus a popular 1964 movie starring George Hamilton also called Your Cheatin' Heart. The movie is, perhaps wisely, vague about the circumstances of his death. No two of the tellings agree on all the details.

This New Year's Eve, the 50th anniversary of Williams' death, will be the subject of several memorial events around the country. Only one will be on the street where he probably died. Ashley Capps, whose company, AC Entertainment, manages Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre, is planning a show called "Hank's Last Night."

Capps, a music promoter first known as WUOT's authority on jazz, might have seemed an odd one to come up with a Hank Williams show. "Some people think of him as the greatest American songwriter," he says. "He was certainly one of the greatest American songwriters.... He was a step far beyond the traditional influence of country. Just a few months ago, I heard [major jazz guitarist] Bill Frisell play at the Village Vanguard in New York. He did a version of 'Your Cheatin' Heart.' What we're trying to do with New Year's Eve is acknowledge the fact that it is the 50th anniversary of Hank's last night alive, which happened to be in Knoxville, Tennessee. It's a tribute not to him so much but to his legacy. And to Knoxville's musical culture, historically and presently. Just down the street from the Tennessee Theatre is the Andrew Johnson. And you know all the rumors."

There are a lot of stories about Hank's last night; some are more than rumors.

Hiram "Hank" Williams grew up poor in rural Alabama between the world wars. Inspired by street singers, cowboy movies, and radio stars like Roy Acuff, he picked up guitar and fiddle and started singing. At 14, he was winning talent contests and forming a band called the Drifting Cowboys. He started drinking about the same time. Almost skeletally skinny—he was six-two when he wasn't slouching, 140 pounds—he washed out in his selective-service examination during World War II. He wrote songs and made recordings, and his early ones show a maybe unsustainable range of enthusiasms, from "Honky Tonkin'" and "Move It on Over" to "I Saw the Light."

After several false starts, including rejection from the Grand Ole Opry, his "Lovesick Blues" became a national hit in early 1949, as did "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." The contrite Opry promptly recruited him, and for the next three years he was one of the most prolific and most popular singers in the nation. By 1950, when he released "Why Don't You Love Me," his shows in arenas around the country were drawing over 10,000. An even younger pop star, Tony Bennett, made a hit of his song, "Cold, Cold Heart." But his near-constant back pain exacerbated his drug abuse, which was, by some accounts, pathological. In 1951, he was diagnosed as having spina bifida occulta, and late that year, he endured an operation to improve it, but it wasn't wholly successful.

The year 1952 was his worst. Though he may have been the country's biggest pop star that year, his drinking and drug use, as his life, were out of control. At the peak of his career, Williams' manager Jim Denny would routinely send the star on the road with two bodyguards whose main job was to keep Hank from getting too inebriated to perform. In May, Williams' wife Audrey divorced him; they had two children, including 3-year-old Hank Jr. The settlement cut into his famously large salary. To hear him tell it, by the end of the year he had nothing but his last paycheck. In August the Opry, weary of his no-shows, fired him. In September, he recorded "Kaw-Liga," "Take These Chains from My Heart," and "Your Cheatin' Heart." None would be released until after his death.

In October, he secretly married a beautiful young divorcee named Billie Jean Jones, but he spent much of the next several weeks in and out of sanitariums, eventually diagnosed with acute alcoholism. The last sanitarium discharged him on Dec. 13. At the time, his Cajun anthem "Jambalaya" was a national radio hit. He'd also recently released a single, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

Hank Williams spent Christmas with his family in Montgomery, squiring Billie Jean around town, in hopes that folks would see that she wasn't just a gold digger. He assured everyone that she was going to help him settle down. He'd lined up holiday gigs in Charleston, W. Va., and Canton, Ohio—his first big shows outside the South in several months. After his recent struggles with rehabilitation, he hoped this would be the beginning of the rest of his career. He got some of his old Nashville friends, like steel guitarist Don Helms, to help him out. Several agreed to meet him for the Canton show. Homer and Jethro, the comedian-musician duo from Knoxville, then at the peak of their national fame, would be the openers.

On Dec. 28, Williams put on a coat and tie and played his last show, a party for the Montgomery chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. It was mostly a union of jazz performers, not necessarily country fans, but he wowed them. They listened "attentively," according to one, "as if attending a concert by Benny Goodman...."

Some friends thought he was in pretty good shape for a guy recovering from years of drugs and alcohol abuse. Reporters described him as "tired looking," though, and other friends worried that he was seriously ill, and observed that he even had trouble controlling his bladder. He had a bad night on Dec. 29, kept waking up. His wife asked, "Hank, what the devil is the matter with you?" He answered, "Billie, I think I see God coming down the road."

The trip from Montgomery north seemed jinxed from the start. They originally intended to fly from Montgomery to Charleston, W. Va., but the morning after Hank's bad night, there was snow on the ground. Driving seemed safer.

Williams enlisted 18-year-old Charles Carr, an Auburn freshman and sometime cabdriver, to drive his baby blue 1952 Cadillac to Ohio. That model was a streamlined, sportier-looking car than later Cadillacs would be. Before he left, he reportedly got a shot of morphine from a Montgomery doctor. They spent the night of the 30th in a Birmingham hotel. Carr, who had a reputation for reckless driving, got in trouble with a local cop for an illegal U-turn. They proceeded north. "Jambalaya" was on the radio, and Hank asked Carr how he liked it. Carr answered, with teenage candor, that it didn't make any sense. "That's 'cause you don't understand French," Hank retorted.

One story has them stopping in Fort Payne, Ala., for breakfast, and one has them stopping for a meal in Chattanooga where Hank left the waitress a $50 tip. They arrived in Knoxville late in the morning of New Year's Eve. Worried about getting to Charleston in time for the show, they decided to ditch the car in Knoxville and catch a plane north; a flight was scheduled to leave McGhee Tyson at 3:30. The layover was long enough for a local radio appearance.

According to grocer/politician/ impresario Cas Walker, Carr called him at his station, WROL, saying that Williams would be happy to drop in to do "a number" for his afternoon show, "WROL Hayloft," broadcast from the station's Gay Street headquarters. (Some authorities, including Escott's book, mistakenly identify Walker with rival WNOX's "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.") One source holds that Williams never gave a public performance in Knoxville, but he seems to have had some connections here. Walker told the News-Sentinel that Williams "had made a few singing appearances as a guest entertainer" on his WROL show. They apparently respected each other.

However, Walker later said, "He never showed up, and it was probably because he was not feeling well." At the airport, Williams boarded a flight to Ohio, but the pilot, discouraged by the snow, returned to Knoxville about two hours later. Williams gave up on the New Year's Eve Charleston show and had Carr drive him into town.

It had been a typically disturbing Christmas season here. Holiday shootings in three separate Knoxville households had left a mom, a dad, and a teenager dead, not counting a husband-wife murder-suicide in Morristown. However, many were convinced that Knoxville's greatest threat was not domestic violence, but Communism. Praising red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy as a misunderstood hero, the Knoxville Journal stirred up suspicion about the "Pinkos," and old resentments about the New Deal, which right-wingers hoped President-elect Eisenhower would overturn. That day, over seven years after Roosevelt's death, the Journal ran two anti-FDR columns.

New Year's Eve, 1952, was low-key by the standards of later eras. The Tennessee and some other movie houses were hosting midnight shows. But champagne was still illegal in Knoxville; you could only find it in private clubs. The city did sponsor a dry "Gala New Year's Eve Show & Dance" at Chilhowee Park, featuring Wacky Red Murphy and local comedian/politician Archie Campbell as "Grandpappy," plus the Cherokee Indian Square Dancers.

The next day's show on the same Chilhowee Park stage made the changing year seem like a cultural watershed: Knoxville's first live performer of 1953 was a teenager from Louisiana, Lloyd Price, "that 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' man and his RED HOT band." At the time, it was still called R&B.

As usual, most Knoxvillians were focused on the UT Vols, who were in Dallas for the next day's Cotton Bowl. Hundreds of Knoxville fans, including the ailing former coach Bob Neyland, were joining them. NBC would be broadcasting the game nationally, but not here; Knoxville didn't yet have TV stations. The nearest NBC-TV affiliate was in Atlanta.

It was dark by 6:08, when Charles Carr and Hank Williams checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel.

The 17-story Andrew Johnson was the tallest building in East Tennessee. It was almost 25 years old, and its marble floors and ornate balustrades spoke of an earlier, swankier era, but it was still considered Knoxville's finest hotel. Its 350 rooms all had private bathrooms. The AJ catered to Smokies tourists in those days, before there were many hotel rooms closer to the mountains, but in 1952, many Knoxvillians who could afford it came downtown to have a steak in elegant surroundings, accompanied by an organist playing popular songs and stylish classics.

Though its ballroom was sometimes a place to hear big horn-based jazz bands, whether the proprietors liked it or not the hotel had also developed a genuine country-music heritage. In 1935, the AJ's top floor had been home to Lowell Blanchard's WNOX studios. One of Blanchard's most promising young stars who played up there was a redheaded Knoxvillian named Roy Acuff. By the time he made it to the Opry, Acuff was the idol of a thousand poor white kids in Alabama, including Hank Williams, who would imitate, and improve on, Acuff's high-lonesome croon. (Acuff knew Williams, but, disgusted by his drug abuse, was said not to be a great admirer.)

The Andrew Johnson also had some connections to the fates of celebrated people. Amelia Earhart had stayed there in 1936, the year before her disappearance; while in the hotel, she told a newspaper reporter that she didn't really expect to see old age. In 1943, the great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff stayed there after performing at UT's Alumni Hall. Meant to be just one stop in his American tour, it turned out to be the final performance of his long career. In pain from undiagnosed cancer, he canceled the rest of his tour and died about three months later.

The desk clerk on duty on the night of December 31, 1952, was named Dan McCrary. He thought the teenage chauffeur who approached his counter seemed nervous. He didn't see Williams, but was aware that Carr's boss needed porters to help him to his room. Carr told McCrary that they intended to spend the night.

By some second-hand accounts, Hank Williams had stayed here before. Years later, porters would boast that he had holed up in the AJ for days at a time, tipping them as they kept him supplied with booze, drugs, and girls. And there are, inevitably, stories that he purchased moonshine from a Knoxville supplier that night.

Carr ordered a couple of steak dinners from the dining room. The teenager ate his steak; Williams picked at his but didn't finish it. According to reports released in the days to come, Williams began hiccupping and went into convulsions.

Sometime during the night, Dr. Paul H. Cardwell arrived. A clean-cut man in his 50s, Cardwell had a modest doctor's office about three blocks away, on Cumberland Avenue, in a building called the George Apartments, where he also lived. How and why he was called, and whether Williams' Alabama physician/supplier had anything to do with it, is one of the many questions of that night. It's not clear whether Dr. Cardwell knew who Williams was; he might have been the handiest doctor who was still downtown on New Year's Eve.

Cardwell later described Williams as "very drunk," and that there were some pills visible in the room. But he gave him two injections, of vitamin B-12 and morphine. By some stories, he gave Williams the morphine accidentally, but he told investigators in the days afterward that the morphine was called for to control Williams' convulsions. It may not have been the only intravenous morphine Hank Williams got in Knoxville that day.

Among the many accounts of Williams' last hours in Knoxville was one related in Escott's book: that, perhaps earlier, he had made his way to St. Mary's Hospital to see his "usual" doctor and had also gotten a shot of morphine from him.

In any case, after Dr. Cardwell's injections, Williams lay down in his hotel bed, fell asleep, and later rolled off the bed onto the floor.

Either Williams or Carr changed their plans, and decided not to spend the whole night in the hotel, probably to be doubly sure to get Hank to the still-scheduled Canton show, over 400 miles away, in plenty of time. Carr checked him out at 10:45. By all accounts, he was not conscious; the only signs of life Hank Williams showed were two "coughing sounds." For the next 50 years, doctors, detectives, and biographers would speculate about whether those two sounds could have been made by a dead man.

Porters unnamed in the available sources loaded Hank Williams into the back of the blue Cadillac. Carr likely drove north on Gay Street, which was quiet at that hour except for some boys milling around on the sidewalks with firecrackers in their pockets, waiting for midnight. He likely drove by the Tennessee Theatre, which was then opening its doors for an 11:15 showing of a Broderick Crawford movie called Stop, You're Killing Me.

Carr drove him out of town, probably via Magnolia, which would have taken them right past Archie Campbell's country/comedy show at Chilhowee Park, to U.S. Highway 11W. Though it seems roundabout today, 11W was probably the best route to eastern Ohio. But the curvy, narrow road was developing a reputation as "Bloody 11W."

Most accounts imply Carr didn't stop until he got to Blaine, in Grainger County. However, one lady who spoke to us says her husband, who used to operate a drive-in short-order and beer store on 11W—Old Rutledge Pike—in the Three Points area of northeast Knox County, says the car stopped there. She'd rather we not use her name. Her husband, a former zinc miner, died some years ago. He ran the drive-in in the early '50s, and said he had usually closed by 10 or so, but happened to be open unusually late one night—maybe because of the holiday. She says that her husband used to say it wasn't just one car, but two, that pulled up. He assumed that they were musicians. He had said that at least two men got out and had something to eat. Her husband was aware that Hank Williams was in the back seat and went out in hopes of meeting him. But he was asleep in the back seat, and the men who had gotten out of the car implied that he was drunk.

By 11:45, Carr had left Knox County, driving on 11W near Blaine. Passing a car, he pulled into the oncoming lane and narrowly missed a vehicle coming toward him. Unfortunately for Carr, the driver of the car was an on-duty state trooper. Corporal Swann Kitts turned around and approached the Cadillac. "I noticed Williams and asked Carr if he could be dead, as he was pale and blue-looking," Kitts recalled. "But he said Williams had drank six bottles of beer and a doctor had given him two injections to help him sleep."

Kitts had Carr follow him to Rutledge. As Williams remained in the Cadillac, Carr met the Justice of the Peace and paid his $25 fine. One of several mysteries about the trip is the presence, noted by Kitts, of an unnamed soldier with Carr at the Rutledge stop. Our anonymous source from the drive-in says she thinks she remembers something about the chauffeur having picked up a hitchhiker, a "serviceman."

Then Carr drove over 200 miles northeast, through the night. He passed through Bristol, the site of the major recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers, 25 years earlier, which had helped make country music a national phenomenon. The yodeling Rodgers, in particular, had been an inspiration to Hank Williams. At a local taxi company, Carr picked up a second driver, one Donald Surface. Before his own death, Surface reportedly claimed that Williams was walking around in Bristol; Carr claimed that he had talked to Williams there, but not that he was walking around. Surface got off somewhere in West Virginia; even the detail of where is controversial.

As dawn approached, Carr, with or without Surface, began to worry about the silence in the back seat. Arriving in Oak Hill, W.Va., a small town of 3,500 southeast of Charleston, he finally pulled over at either a drive-in movie theater or a Pure Oil station (a discrepancy between the original police report and Carr's later memories) at about 5:30 a.m. He found that his boss was cold to the touch, unresponsive and, in fact, already stiff. When he pushed Williams' hand, it sprang back. He sped to the local hospital, six miles away, where Hank Williams was pronounced dead on arrival. Apparently, all the doctors on duty to examine a body on that holiday morning were foreign-born. An Italian intern named Nunnari estimated at 7 a.m., that he might have been dead for six hours. The state lab in Charleston found alcohol in his blood but apparently did not test for other drugs. A Russian physician who spoke little English performed the autopsy. He described the cause of death as an "insufficiency" in the heart's right ventricle. He also added one final twist to the mystery: he observed that, sometime not too long ago, somebody had beaten Williams up.

Still another puzzle was the scrawled note found in the back seat of the Cadillac. An apparent fragment of a song about separation from a lover, sometimes assumed to have been written by Williams that night: "We met we lived and dear we loved / Then came that fatal day...." Undated, it could well have been written earlier in the trip, or back in Alabama.

The news of his death traveled fast. It even arrived in that day's papers around the country that Hank Williams had died in Oak Hill, W. Va. Newspapers reported that he was 37. Many thought he looked 10 years older than that. But he was only 29.

When word got to the shocked crowd in Canton, the audience sang, "I Saw the Light." Williams' services in Montgomery saw the biggest crowd since Jefferson Davis's funeral. In 1953, reporters found it remarkable that the crowd was biracial.

By Jan. 2, the headlines were saying, "Mystery Shrouds Death Of Singer Hank Williams: Hillbilly Star Believed Dead Hours Before Taken To Hospital."

Swann Kitts, the officer who pulled over the Cadillac Carr was driving in Blaine, was given authority to investigate; an unusual situation, considering he was a witness. "After investigating the matter," Kitts concluded, "I think that Williams was dead when he was dressed and carried out of the hotel. Since he was drunk and was given the injections and could have taken some capsules earlier, with all this he couldn't have lasted over an hour and a half or two hours." In spite of Carr's insistence that Williams spoke in Bristol and must have died in the Virginias, biographer Escott agrees that Williams probably died in Knoxville, and that version seems to be accepted by his family.

In the 50 years since, most of the witnesses have died or vanished. Dr. Cardwell maintained his downtown office until he retired in the '70s; he died in 1984. Charles Carr, at 68, is still alive, and resides in Montgomery. We were unable to reach him for this article.

If Hank had gotten his act together, given up the drugs and some of the drinking, he might have looked a lot like Scott Miller. The singer/songwriter, a local favorite, is just back from a marathon recording session in Nashville; his next album, as yet unnamed, is due out in the spring. "I'm letting it name itself, like a dog or something," he says. Miller says Hank Williams set the standard by which he and his colleagues live. "That's where the bar starts," he says. He seems just a little nervous about the show. "It still kind of sits funny with me," he says, wondering about the implications of commemorating a death. He's also a little worried about the Peach Bowl, which may still be in progress during the show. (Like 50 years ago, a bowl game is influencing the way Knoxvillians celebrate the holiday.) "I hope people come out," he says, "and I hope the Vols win."

Miller grew up with Hank Williams' music, and read Flippo's biography of Williams when he was a teenager. His old band, the V-roys, sometimes did a takeoff on a Hank Williams song, "Settin' the Woods On Fire," which they played as "Settin' Myself on Fire." He also played some Hank in his early solo days at Hawkeye's. Today, he and his wife, Thea, are fond of quoting a stanza from "Hey, Good Lookin'": the line about getting a new date book and"writin' your name down on every page."

"Now, that's love," he says.

Several of those involved with the show say it will be a celebration of Knoxville's peculiar place in America's cultural landscape as much as Hank Williams'. "Knoxville's got a foot in history, everywhere," the Virginia-raised Miller says. "It's just one of the many musical intersections Knoxville has," says Capps, comparing it to RCA's unlikely discovery of Elvis on Market Square in 1954, via his first Sun platter, not long after Williams' death.

"It all ties into Knoxville's crazy place in the play of things," says songwriter R.B. Morris, another headliner at the Tennessee Theatre show. He's been haunted by Hank's ghost longer than the others. One of Morris's best-known songs, "Take That Ride," references Hank Williams' death, comparing it to Knoxville writer James Agee's demise, which also came in the backseat of a car driven by a hired chauffeur, speculating that the two have a good deal more in common than that.

"Waylon Jennings used to talk about the Hank Williams Syndrome. Living hard, dying young. There are many American versions of it. In the jazz world, Charlie Parker. In the art world, Jackson Pollack. And they were all on the cutting edge. Hank Williams as much as anybody embodied this thing."

None of the New Year's Eve performers are old enough to remember Hank Williams, but speaking of his North Knoxville youth, Morris says, "He was there." Morris first encountered Williams' music in the late '50s, at Fun Night at Alice Bell School, a mini-festival with go-cart races and musical shows in tents. "I stepped into one of the tents where people were playing music," he says. "I wasn't used to hanging out at night. I saw these men on stage dressed in drag. In Martha White bags and fake boobs, singing 'Jambalaya.' That song, the melody of which is a classic old Cajun melody, really sticks with you. It was there, and didn't leave you."

He adds, as if it explains something about what it means to grow up in Knoxville: "My earliest memory of nighttime music is men in drag singing Hank Williams.

About Hank's Last Night, Morris, who has studied the subject, says, "It is about as clear a mystery as JFK's assassination or something," he says. "They figure it from every angle, and then go with one, but it never quite adds up."

He doesn't necessarily buy into the old "Knoxville Curse" idea, but he brings it up: it may have started after Rachmaninoff's death, when protégé Vladimir Horowitz allegedly refused to play Knoxville, because he thought the city was bad luck. Every generation has its own version of it. Since Rachmaninoff, the Knoxville Curse has been blamed for the deaths of everyone from Hollywood crooner Nelson Eddy, who died onstage in Florida not long after a 1966 Knoxville show (though, to be fair, almost four months after it), to Ozzy Osbourne guitar hero Randy Rhoads, who was killed in a 1982 plane crash immediately after performing here. Morris is not a superstitious man, but he admits he thought about the Curse, a few years ago, when he was opening for Bob Dylan. Morris was backstage, Dylan was front and center, when a bank of lights plummeted onto the stage, nearly clobbering the legendary performer.

The third headliner will be Todd Steed and Apelife, whose latest CD, to be released at the show, is said to be a meditation on subjects Knoxvillian. They're all expecting to evoke the spirit of Hank Williams in their own distinctive ways.

Knoxville has a lot of musical distinctions, but can't honestly claim Hank Williams as its own. Knoxville was, however, the home of Williams' greatest influence, Roy Acuff; it's a place he seems to have known in his life; and, by persuasive accounts, it's the place where he died. Whether it's appropriate for Knoxville to claim a piece of the legacy of this southern Alabama boy who became one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters makes, at least, for a provocative question.

For several centuries, European pilgrims would honor Christian martyrs by making their way to the sites where they died—or, if you prefer, where they last lived—and found some satisfaction in just being there on the day. Some would argue that Hank Williams was the secular American equivalent of Thomas � Becket, a pop- culture martyr. To some, attending the Tennessee Theatre on New Year's Eve 50 years hence may seem something like a pilgrimage.

December 12, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 50
© 2002 Metro Pulse