September 17, 1923 - January 1, 1953
Hiram King Williams was born in Butler County, Alabama on September 17, 1923. His parents, Lon and Lily Williams were migrate rail road workers who traveled with the progressing railway systems in the South. They lived in box cars and rail road shacks until they moved to Georgiana in 1929. A brain injury, Lon sustained in WWI, caused Lilly to have him committed to a Veterans Hospital in Pensacola, Florida where he stayed until 1937, leaving Lilly Williams to raise her family alone.
From the time Hiram was born, his parents noted that an unusual deformity was present on his back. Today, doctors would understand this condition as Spinal Bifida. This hindered him from playing sports and from being as physically active as other children and most likely contributed to his interest in music. As he grew older, his mother and sisters encouraged him to learn bible hymns and play instruments. At a very young age, while living in Georgiana, Hiram met Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a street musician and one-man-band. Rufus Payne was born to slave parents in Louisiana on the Payne Plantation. Payne later moved to New Orleans where he was influenced by the soulful culture of the city. He shared his love of blues music with Hiram and taught him how to play the guitar and sing.
Hiram was 16 when he dropped his given name for, “Hank” and was playing on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, just as his predecessor, Tee-Tot had done in New Orleans. His mother served as his agent and entered him in several of the local talent contests, which he won so frequently, he was asked not to enter in order to give other contestants a chance to win. Hank was eventually picked up by WSFA for a radio segment called the, “The Singing Kid”. His connection to Braxton Schuffert helped him establish his band, "The Drifting Cowboys". In 1938, Hank dropped out of school permanently to be a full time performer and traveled all over the south with his band preforming in shows and honky tonks.
|Hank and Audrey Williams (Lycrecia - Audrey's daughter and Hank Williams Jr)|
In Banks, Alabama, while preforming at a medicine show, Hank met Audrey Shepard and the two fell in love. They were married on December 15, 1944. Hank had a serious problem with alcohol; when he drank, he drank until he induced severe depression or anger, which essentially led to the constant fighting and replacement of band members. Hank had managed to stay sober for more than a year prior to marrying Audrey, but while living in Andalusia, Alabama, Hank and Audrey had a huge argument over his drinking which escalated to him throwing her out of the house. He was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and spent the night at the Covington County Jail. When his friend and band member, Don Helms came to bail him out the next morning, Hank looked smugly over at Don and asked, “What’d ya want me to do, stand on my head?” Don paid the $30 bond and on the way out a jailer said, “Come back and see us Hank.” And Hank replied, “You can all go to hell.”
In 1946, Sterling Records released a six-song record that caught the attention of MGM. By 1947, Hank’s career went from mainstream radio to one of America’s most prominent and famous country music singers. He signed with MGM and became part of the cast of The Louisiana Hay Ride. Hank was one hell of a performer, it was rumored that while singing, women would fall faint and actually pass out. He also made a name for himself due to some of his drunken behavior.
Hank continued to perform all over the south and abroad but his drinking and womanizing would finally catch up with him in the summer of 1952. He was denied a position at the Grand Old Opry due to drunkenness and his wife Audrey divorced him. He had also developed some dependency to morphine during that time, after a hunting accident aggravated his fragile back condition.
|Hank Williams and his second wife, Billie Jean Jones Williams|
In October 1952, Hank married Billie Jean Jones, the 19-year-old daughter of a Bossier City Police Chief in New Orleans, Louisiana. The event drew some 10,000 specters who attended the wedding as a paid event. That December, Hank and Billie Jean attended the 8th annual party for the American Federation of Musicians in Montgomery, Alabama at the Elite Café, where he gave his last performance. That evening, Hank and Billie Jean had an argument and she left him. The following month, on New Year’s Day, Hank was on his way to a show in West Virginia. The Driver, Charles Carr, stopped for gas just near Oak Hill Virginia and when he turned to the backseat to check on Hank, he was dead.
According to documented history, Hank visited a doctor that week for his back and was given a morphine injection to get him through the long car ride. Coupled with heavy drinking, this caused Hank’s death. On January 4th, 1953 the largest funeral in Alabama history took place at the Montgomery Auditorium for Hank Williams. He was laid to rest at the Oakwood Cemetery Annex where he spends his eternity with his beloved Audrey.
|Hank Williams funeral January 4, 1953|
|Hank Williams Jr.|
|Shelton Hank Williams III|
His grave has long been a source of legend in Alabama as a location frequented by his ghost. Music by Alan Jackson, David Allen Coe, and even Hank’s son and grandson; Hank Williams Jr. and Shelton Hank Williams III, have all written songs about this legendary spirit. His ghost has been spotted as far away as Nashville, Tennessee, where he allegedly haunts the Ryman Theater (the former location of the Grand Old Opry), his boyhood home in Georgiana and even the Old Covington County Jail in Andalusia.
The lost highways between Nashville and Montgomery are littered with the stories of Hank’s ghost. Still carrying the charismatic and charming demeanor of the man he was in life, it’s no wonder he is still so beloved and cherished today. No amount of legacy would be complete without the spiritual aspect of a man so prominent and influential to music and history. The spirit of Hank Williams lives on, in song and inspiration, somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace.
You can read more about the ghost of Hank Williams in, Haunted Montgomery Alabama by Faith Serafin