30 Years From Hank Williams

This piece was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine in 1985.

Hank Williams has now been dead longer than he lived. And outside of a hundred or more fine songs, his thrity-year-old memory survives best among some of his cousins down in Georgiana, Alabama, about sixty miles south of Montgomery. Among them are Taft and Erleen Skipper (Taft’s daddy and Hank’s mother were brother and sister), who run a kind of clearing house on Hank. Taft is a tall, thin, and happy man, content to make way for a vital wife who keeps up a hand-written correspondence that would intimidate the secretarial corps at General Motors. Hank’s fans call Erleen so often to chat about their hero that she has to sleep with the phone off the hook. But she’ll talk to you in daylight. And if you love Hank like she does, she’ll have you to dinner the day before the Hank Williams Memorial Picnic. (That way you’ll know enough people to feel at home when she has you to dinner again at the picnic). I swear that she’ll have cousins who have come all the way from Mobile and Panama City eat in the kitchen to make room at the table for a stranger from New York or Oklahoma who wants to know more about Hank.

Around a stove, Erleen Skipper makes Julia Child look like she ought to be patting out hamburgers for McDonald’s. She is the only woman in my life who can fix a carrot that I’ll eat outside of a cake. But her specialty is fried chicken that leaves you feeling like you ought to fire-bomb all the Colonel Sanders and Me Wing places between Rt. 2 Georgiana and wherever you live — except that you won’t feel much like violence after pound cake, peach cobbler, and pecan pie that are nearly as sweet as the tea.

You’ll be lucky to get to the swing on the porch where you can hear those cousins, come out of the kitchen, do a string of Hank’s songs. J.C. McNeil, who learned to pick, sing, and drink with Hank, starts with “Jambalaya.” His brother Walt, sometimes known as O’Neil McNeil and the image of Hank Williams, fills any turning time with good stories about things like being broke in New Orleans with Hank. Mrs. McNeil would wire them some Greyhound money, but Hank would beat Walt to Western Union and spend the ten bucks down Bourbon Street or up St. Charles. And after J.C.’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Walt will tell you about another road trip when he found that all of Hank’s suitcases were full of cash.

Erleen, who has barely had time to finish the dishes, pops on the porch like an atom about to split to take the newcomers on the Hank Williams tour. A Carolina business man, Turner Tuten, who knows all of Hank’s songs and,has the biggest car with the best bumper sticker (a picture of a donkey and “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams You Can Kiss My…” drives and Erleen points the way — to the birthplace, to the church where Hank sang by his mother, to Thigpen’s log cabin (one of Hank’s first honkey tonks), to the railroad engine that Hank’s father used to drive, then home to rest for the food and music of Sunday’s memorial picnic still to come.

Hank deserves such cousins. He has pleasured us with great music, but he himself never had it too good. He was born with a spinal defect that always hurt him, and he grew up in a south Alabama so poor the Depression did not even register there. The most money in his household probably came from the pension the family got when Mr. Williams left to go into the V.A. hospital for nearly a decade. Hank was seven at the time.

But he learned to pick and sing; and, by the time he was fourteen, those talents had taken him into the gut buckets of scenic Alabama, places like Rutlege, Fort Deposit, Evergreen, and Andalusia, where a customer might bite your eyebrow off and where the cheap whiskey and women were to start in on Hank’s scrawny body.

School got to be a problem for a singer who was out two-thirds of the night, and Hank ditched the academy when he was nineteen, in the ninth grade. Many years later, his mother justified what must seem a bit of a parental indulgence with the comment that “too much book learning might have spoiled the wonderful, natural flow of his song-words.” With threats of the school house removed, Hank was on his way to trouble and fame. The trouble showed itself clearly as he made his first appearance in a sanitarium in 1945, age twenty-two; the fame materialized with his spectacular debut on the Grand Old Opry in June 1949.

Hank had taken on a marriage along the way. Miss Audrey Sheppard (Hank was her second husband) married him in a Texaco station near Andalusia, gave him a bad time, spent his money as fast as he could make it, and apparently kept some pretty loose company while Hank was on the road. Hank returned the favor with a quantity of booze, some loose company of his own, and a few shots from one of the pistols that he loved to collect and sometimes carried. Audrey reportedly swore that she wasn’t livin’ with no man that shot at her. Hank allowed that that suited him, that he didn’t want to live with no woman he had to shoot at.

She divorced him the second time and for good early in 1952 (she had divorced him first in 1948, just before Hank, Jr. was conceived), and Hank got serious about his debauchery, serious enough to get fired from the Grand Ole Opry that August. It was back to the minor leagues for him, after only three years of Nashville, back to the Louisiana hayride in Shreveport. But Hank had with him the sweet solace of one of the most beautiful women ever to hit Nashville, Billie Jean Jones Eshliman.

She was a telephone operator from Bossier City, Louisiana, and was as naive as she was beautiful. One Nashville friend told me that she did not know how to ring a doorbell, and she herself claimed that when she first started staying in hotels she was carrying her clothes in a Kotex box, a little something to strain the tact of a doorman. She came to Nashville with Faron Young who allows that, on a double-date, Hank pulled a pistol on him and said, “I don’t want no hard feelings out of you but I’m in love with Billie Jean.” Faron, no gallant, conceded the point and the woman. Hank married Billie Jean three times (he was her second husband), once before a J.P. in Minden, Louisiana, and twice more on the stage of the New Orleans Civic Auditorium, before two SRO paying crowds who got to hear a little of “Jambalaya” before the sacred vows were spoke. Billie Jean’s divorce from her first husband, Harrison Eshliman, came through some ten days after the nuptial extravaganza.

But if real romance was blooming, it had come too late. Hank was in bad shape by now; he had only a couple of months to live, and he was involved with a parolee out of Oklahoma named Toby Marshall. After a stint in San Quentin, Toby had given up armed robbery to specialize in the complimentary crimes of forgery and barbituates; he had bought himself a thrity-five dollar diploma, had it printed “D.S.C.” which he took to stand for “Doctor of Science and Psychology” — “Psychology” was a pretty tough spelling problem for a man with his background. Toby knew how to write prescriptions for morphine, demerol, and chloral hydrate, though he was going to use those drugs to help Hank get over his alcoholism. Actually, as everyone knows, he helped Hank on a New Year’s Day trip to the skull orchard; then he sent the family a bill for just over seven hundred dollars. Toby’s wife, on the same prescriptions and under the same schooled care, bit the dust a couple of months later. And Toby was reeled back into the Oklahoma State Pen.

Hank has not had it much better since he died. The funeral, on 4 January 1953, drew twenty-five thousand and was called the greatest emotional plunge in Montgomery since the inauguration of Jeff Davis. Except maybe for all those people staring into the open coffin to see Hank lying there holding a little white Bible, the funeral was not entirely out of order. It has been the business of the estate that has been grim. Hank left almost no loot, something like thirteen thousand bucks, a four-thousand-dollar cashiers check and about nine thousand in guitars and monogrammed cowboy boots, to be played off against a fair number of debts. But he left a lot of great songs that would generate much cash for the heirs, whoever they were.

Audrey, who could have been the official widow had she not been so eager to divorce Hank a year earlier, went on the road as Mrs. Hank Williams. Billie Jean was doing the same gig and filed suit against Audrey for cutting into her turf. Audrey then bought Billie Jean off for thirty “thou” and set herself up in the business of being Hank’s widow. She might have been booting him out in 1952 (as she had in 1948), but by September 1954, she was the veiled widow who unveiled this poem on the back of her ex-husband’s tomb stone:

THANK YOU FOR ALL THE LOVE YOU GAVE ME
THERE COULD BE NO ONE STRONGER
THANK YOU FOR THE MANY BEAUTIFUL SONGS
THEY WILL LIVE LONGER AND LONGER

THANK YOU FOR BEING A WONDERFUL FATHER
TO LYCRECIA
SHE LOVED YOU MORE THAN YOU KNEW
THANK YOU FOR OUR PRECIOUS SON
AND THANK GOD HE LOOKS SO MUCH LIKE YOU

AND NOW CAN I SAY:
THERE ARE NO WORDS IN THE DICTIONARY
THAT CAN EXPRESS MY LOVE FOR YOU
SOMEDAY BEYOND THE BLUE

AUDREY WILLIAMS

Audrey was not quite so touched in 1974 when she was selling off most of Hank’s stuff. At the auction, she told The Nashville Banner (5 November), “I haven’t decided yet about some other items…There are some things I don’t want to get rid of but will if the price is right.” A few days later she was telling The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (10 November) that she felt it was O.K. to unload the junk since Hank lived on through the work of the Beatles. Well, Audrey never knew much about music anyway.

Meanwhile, Billie Jean was giving her a bad time. She had given up the estate, for thirty thousand, because she feared that mess about her tardy divorce from her first husband, Harrison Eshliman. (Audrey did not exactly rush forward to confess that she had married Hank fifty days before the end of the reconciliation period after the divorce from her first husband.) But Billie Jean was widowed again, in 1960 when Johnny Horton (author of “The Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska”) was killed in a Texas car wreck. Billie Jean came back for her share of the purse and eventually, after years of litigation, she got it, some fifty percent of domestic royalties along with the legal widowhood. She survives today (1985) as Mrs. Johnny Horton.

Some of the other unpleasant scrambling involved who was going to get Hank, Jr. and who was going to administer the estate. Hank’s mom, Lillie, became administratrix and guardian of Hank, Jr. while he was in Alabama (Audrey was in charge of him and his goods elsewhere). But Lillie died fast, in 1955, leaving the job to Hank’s sister, Irene, who handled them badly, getting sued regularly by Hank, Jr. and Audrey. Irene threw in the towel when she got busted for bringing seven million dollars worth of cocaine into Laredo from Mexico. A lawyer was appointed to the job then, and things have run fairly smoothly. Hank, Jr., meanwhile, lived with Audrey until he came of age; then he split.

Hank’s memory was served when a plan for a memorial auditorium — eighty feet long, sixty feet high, and in the shape of a cowboy boot, built over a guitar-shaped pool at the intersection of interstates 65 and 85 in Montgomery — failed. A plan to build a guitar-shaped museum had failed before that. The world of art, however, has been more persistently antagonistic. We are still wailing for “Kaw-Liga” to be choreographed; it could be the hillbilly Nutcracker. But just about everything else has been covered. MGM put out Your Cheatin’ Heart, a film with all the magic of “Meet The Press.” The movie opened in Montgomery in November 1964 as Governor George Wallace declared Hank Williams week. George Hamilton’s portrayal of Hank prompted one Williams scholar to suggest that perhaps Hamilton was a better choice for the part than Sammy Davis, Jr. Susan Oliver’s version of Audrey reminds one of nothing so much as a Sandra Dee doing Tammy Goes To Nashville.

Just to keep all this interesting, and to keep her lawyers working, Billie Jean sued MGM over her part, or her lack of a part, in the film. Audrey, you see, was the technical adviser, and she did not waste a lot of footage on the competition. Billie Jean got no damages, but the film was more or less shelved; you can write her in Shreveport to thank her for saving late-night television from George “Hank” Hamilton.

Babs Deal wrote a befuddling little novel called High Lonesome World: The Death and Life of A Country Singer (Doubleday 1969). In each of its thirty-six chapters, a character gives his or her response to the death of Hank Williams; reading the book, the same facts over and over again, is about as joyful as learning the multiplication tables. The most distinguished literary treatment of Hank is a Hustler story (March 1978) called “Little Skeeter’s Gotta Learn,” by Roy Campbell. Herein a girl named Candy is seduced on the day of Hank’s death. She is so pleased with herself, and so anxious for more, that she leaves home pretending that she is going to Hank’s funeral. Actually of course, she is off to be a hooker. Skeeter, her young admirer, learns of how Candy has abused the memory of Hank, beats her senseless, and then starts his own pilgrimage to the grave (which, by the way, has been moved at least once).

Roger Williams’ biography, Sing a Sad Song (in The Music in American Life Series from Illinois Press, 1981) is a good work. But Jay Caress’ Christian version, Hank Williams: Country Music’s Tragic King (Stein & Day, 1979) is a little strange; it includes some useful detail, but it ends with Hank looking down from heaven on a world turning to ashes, realizing that his own life had been a metaphor for the world itself and its dead-ahead apocalypse. Chet Flippo, then of Rolling Stone, was on hand to de-Christianize Hank in Your Cheatin’ Heart (Simon and Schuster, 1981), a really hard look at the private life of our Alabama boy, right down to which acts of darkness he preferred.

Hank has caused plenty of songs not his own. Johnny Paycheck picks up on his early “Mansion on the Hill” and sings that Hank should have told him more about the traps of fame and fortune. Waylon Jennings, singing about trying to make it in Nashville, ain’t sure that “Hank done it this way.” The fashion is such, even now, that practically everybody who wants to lay claim to country sincerity invokes old “Lovesick” Hank Williams — like when Charley Pride does an album called “There’s A Little Bit Of Hank In Me,” it is time to cover up. Even the Barry Manilows out there would have to be offended at the tributes to Hank by Del Shannon and Spike Jones.

This sorrowful capitalizing on Hank has finally reached parody. Boy Blount, one of Esquire’s contributing editors, does the job in Crackers (Knopf, 1980), in a number called “Why Ain’t I Half As Good as Old Hank (Since I’m Feeling All Dead Anyway)?” This soulful and rhythmic ditty claims that,

If old Hank Williams had had my luck
He’d ‘ve died in the back of a pick-up truck
Instead of that Cadillac limousine
He’s a legend and I’m selling sewing machines.

Actually, though, The Flying Burrito Brothers beat Blount to parody with a piece called “Hippie Boy” by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons. Hank, under his recitation alias “Luke the Drifter,” had done a bit back in 1950 called “The Funeral.” The narrator here comes across the Savannah burial of a black child. Luke’s soda-cracker comments—to the effect that this child was good and is with God inspite of his black skin, “Protruding Up,” and look of general ignorance—should have been enough to offend even the mystic Knights of the Sea. The Burrito Brothers version is about the funeral of a little drug courier, a child who, on a mission for a dollar, had tried to eat the drugs when he got caught. As unseemly as he may be, he, too is with God, long hair and all. But the real moral of the story, as most who know The Flying Burrito Brothers could guess, is “Never carry more than you can eat.” (Several members of the band have since failed to take that good advice.) All of this in the name of Hank Williams.

The good things that have happened to Hank…? Well, while he was alive, maybe Billie Jean though Hank was not much alive when he got to her.

Since he’s been dead…? A couple of good songs have come down. Mike Cross gets next to Hank in “Thanks Hank” which goes,

He sang a sad story that sounded sort of like mine.
When he got through singing I was feeling just fine.
His sweet song got me through,
When her cold cold heart gave me the lovesick blues.
So I say thanks Hank for letting me listen to you.

And I think Hank would rolic in Moe Brandy’s “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” which has these great lines,

You wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
About a gal like my first ex-wife.

The new Time/Life Country Classic series started with a good issue on Hank — forty of his songs, none of them overdubbed with the two or three thousand violins that MGM still thinks will sell Hank Williams again. And you get a booklet on Hank with an excellent introduction by Roger Williams.

And that’s about it, except for Taft and Erleen, their broad good will and hospitality, and the memorial picnic they put on the day after they have already fed and toured you like crazy. The picnic proper is a sweet Sunday affair, laid out among the pines on the banks of Sherling lake near Greenville, Alabama. Maybe a thousand fans come for the all-day Opry style show that is dominated by Jim Owen, a Hank Williams sound-alike with a perm. The food and music are as remarkable as yesterday’s. But the crowd is the best part. They swarm in early from places like Opp, Garland, and Chapman, the places Hank knew when he started picking and singing and the places he came back to even after he was famous. You get to meet practically everybody here since Erleen is hell-bent on having you know her nine brothers and sisters and all their children and grandchildren along with a mix of second and third cousins removed a couple of times.

The good will is abundant; those who come to talk and listen about Hank can get a hand rung off with welcome. No one is rattled by the usual delays of musicians trying to plug in an amp on the back of a flat bed truck; conversation with cousins seen here a year ago fills in well between songs. A fancy young female singer named , of all things, “Demetrius Tapp,” sings a passionate love song to an old man in overalls who has trouble getting back to his lawn chair when it is all done. A masked character called “Orion” does a few numbers. And on it goes with Owen impersonating Hank and a fellow named Colin Leatherwood doing Hank, Jr.

The stories flow, all of them tinted with an unspoken appreciation of Hank’s music and the brush with fame his life has brought the community. Maybe Hank did have an illigetimate child born just after he died; maybe she plays under another name now in New Orleans. Maybe he did get arrested a time or two and maybe he took more painkillers than he really needed. But he never forgot his cousins, and he visited them even when he was at the top of Nashville. Maybe he shot up a few hotels; but he was generous with his own people, and he contributed handsomely to a Catholic hospital in Montgomery. And only a few days before he died, he played some great songs, including the just released “Log Train,” for the neighbors there in Taft Skipper’s country store. Then he did a benefit for a disabled musician up the road. Hank cut up some; we grant him that because he was good.

Late in the day the crowd starts scattering home. The most faithful of them, though, make the forty-mile drive to Hank’s tomb in Montgomery. Braxton and Ola Schuffert, two of Hank’s long-time friends good enough to have been cousins, lead a few songs and a prayer at the grave. And as the day winds down, I head across country feeling that maybe Hank hasn’t had it so bad after all.

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