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 skinnyhe was six-two when he wasn't slouching, 140 poundshe 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, Ohiohis 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 Airport at 3:30. The layover was long enough for a local radio appearance.
According to local 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 Knoxville 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 in Knoxville. Holiday shootings in three separate 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.
Next: A Doctor's Visit