Posts Tagged ‘The Death of Hank Williams’

Every once in while I go on You Tube and search for videos on spina bifida and spinal fusion surgery.

Hank Williams underwent a new and risky form of surgery to relieve acute back pain called spinal fusion. This surgery opened up the back cutting through the muscle to expose the actual bones,nerves and spinal cord itself. Even today recovery can be problematic and the effectiveness of this procedure is by no means guaranteed.

Biographer and writers about Hank Williams have down played the importance of this event. A month and a half after surgery the Grand ole Opry tried to force him back on the road.

I got lucky the last time I checked You Tube in December. The first video I check showed an obviously sincere and intelligent woman, mature and not at all complaining or whining about her situation.

She touched on a number of issues which may have applied to Hank Williams.After six weeks the pain had not gone away;  she had a fall which made the situation worse; and with all of today’s sophisticated pain control options she was still having trouble with medication.

Hank Williams underwent spinal fusion surgery 61 years ago, And after a year of pain, incontinence, experimentation with primitive drugs,   and totally on his own, with no help or sympathy from friends, family,  or business colleagues,  he died 60 years ago.


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Hank Williams had a back condition called spina bifida. His condition would appear to have been the mildest form of this deformity called spina bifida occulta.

In this condition the spinal cord emerges slightly from the protection of the spine itself. Many people live a whole lifetime hardly being aware of this disorder.

In others action must be taken.  Today surgery for spins bifida occulta is performed on the fetus long before birth.

In Mother’s Best Hank Williams mentions he could hardly stand because of the pain.

in December 1951 Hank Williams has a spinal fusion operation at Vanderbilt.

Early in 1952 Hank had to record an apology for missing a show. In that apology he truthfully and honestly described the horrors of his disease and the operation.

Hank mentions in his speech that the doctor told him that riding “several hundred thousands of miles in these automobiles” made his condition worse. This is exactly what would happen to a person with spina bifida occulta who continually bruised his exposed spinal cord by driving over rough old 1940’s roads.

I wrote a blog posting on this after Bono had similar surgery and cancelled a year of shows.

Recently Hank fan Robert Blair wrote a comment on that post.

“For all those who seem to know better maybe Hank should have written a song called “Walk a Mile in my Shoes.” Hank’s last year on earth must have been a
Living Hell. And I understand his surgery left him with incontinence for the
rest of his life. So much for MINOR surgery!
I’d rather be related to HANK WILLIAMS than any of the Presidents.
Robert Blair
Lifetime Hank Williams fan.”

Here’s my reply:

“Thanks so much for your comment Robert. The official and unofficial big name Hank biographers have ignored the seriousness of his spina bifada and subsequent open back spinal surgery, a spinal fusion performed in the early days of this surgery.
They have ridiculed the “Apology” statement which in retrospect sounds exactly like the pain of a spinal fusion as we now know it.
If you research spina bifida and spinal fusion you find incontinence is a common side effect.
It has always sounded to me that alcohol was the only pain-killer available that worked.

But the biographers say he was ONLY a weak, lazy, alcoholic unable to perform a mere few weeks after the surgery. Today even with our sophisticated drugs months would be allowed.”

Here’s 4 minute simplified little review of what spina bifida actually is.

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The Last Ride which has been covered extensively on this blog will open at a number of historic theaters and a more general release this month (June 2012). Here is the historic theatre line-up taken from the website:

June 1-3 Strand Theatre 38 W. Franklin Street, Shelbyville, IN 46176 317.421.2787
June 1-3 Corning Opera House 710 Davis Ave, Corning, IA 50841 641.418.8037
June 1-7 ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks Campus 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem, PA 18015 610.297.7100
June 2 The Ellen Theatre 17 West Main Street, Bozeman, MT 59715 406.585.5885
June 2-3 7th Street Theatre 313 7th Street, Hoquiam, WA 98550 360.537.7400
June 7 McPherson Opera House 219 South Main Street, McPherson, KS 67460 620.241.1952
June 9 Sheridan Opera House 110 North Oak, Telluride, CO 81435 970.728.6363
June  15-18 Lincoln Theatre Foundation 313 W. Kincaid Street, Mount Vernon, WA 98273 360.336.8955
June 29 The Sherman Theater 524 Main Street, Stroudsburg, PA 18360 570.420.2808
July 19-20 Carolina Civic Center Historical Theater 315 North Chestnut Street, Lumberton, NC 28358 910.738.4339

Here are some regular theatres:

6/22/2012 New York Cinema Village  ONE WEEK ONLY 22 East 12th St., New York, NY 10003
6/29/2012 Los Angeles Laemmle NoHo 7 5240 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601
7/27/2012 Phoenix Harkins Shea 14 7354 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, AZ 85260
8/10/2012 Atlanta Lefont Sandy Springs 8 5920 Roswell Rd., Atlanta, GA 30328
8/10/2012 Austin Regal Arbor 8 @Great Hills 9828 Great Hills Trail, Suite 800, Austin, TX 78759

‘The Last Ride’ website with a newly designed logo can be found here.

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The country music legend Ray Price, who is still touring,  was a protege of Hank Williams as most Hank fans know. In fact Hank got Price on the Grand Old Opry. And in the last year of Hank’s life,  Price lived with Hank Williams in a Nashville house they shared after Audrey and Hank split up.

I was excited to get an email from a fellow music blogger who managed to get a long phone interview with Ray Price.

In it, Price talks at length about Hank’s last year. He attributes many of the problems Hank had during that time on the emotional turmoil caused by the separation and divorce from Audrey which Hank did not want.

Readers of this blog will know that I am somewhat obsessed by the spinal fusion surgery Hank underwent in December of 1951.

As I have said before, if that same surgery was performed in 2011 the results could not be predicted, and the outcome could go either way. That’s today. And even today the pain from that surgery would be unbearable and last for many months, and it would be months not weeks before a patient would return to work.  Even the powerful new pain drugs we have today would not totally ease the recovery.

This a long winded way of saying I wish Jason asked about the surgery. But it is till a great interview and well done to get it.

Here’s the link.

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Reaction to the film on the last days of Hank Williams called ‘The Last Ride’ has been decidedly mixed. The movie starring Henry Thomas as Hank and directed by Harry Thomason has played a number of film festivals culminating in a star turn at the Little Rock Film Festival in early June.

However, I have found one very positive review. This is by Nelson Terry who is writing in an online entertainment site out of Little Rock called examiner.com.

Terry is particularly impressed by Henry Thomas who plays Hank Williams in the film. He seems quite willing to accept that there is no actual Hank Williams music in the movie, and he is not actually named in it either. To some extent the film focuses on Hank’s driver who is fictionalized, but Terry finds that interplay interesting.

Obviously Hank purists may find this movie unsatisfactory, but from what I have read about it, it does not diminish Hank’s reputation or stature.  Here’s a portion of the review:

For a biographical film that only focuses on a few days of the life of a public figure, The Last Ride is a strong picture. I was impressed by Henry Thomas’ performance, at no point during the movie did I ever picture him as the kid from E.T. On screen, he was Hank. I thought Jesse James played his part admirably as well. Before this film began to hit the festivals, the Williams family wanted to see it to make sure it didn’t paint Hank (nor the family) in too negative a light. They watched the film, and gave it their approval. Most of the source material for this film came from interviews with Hank’s last driver (whose name was changed in the film at his request). It turned out that the experience of having a music legend die in the backseat of the car he was driving messed the kid up pretty badly (age 19 in the film, but age 17 in real life), and he didn’t really want to be publicly involved with the film.

According to the filmmakers, The Last Ride is supposed to get a wide release by Fox in September. GO SEE IT!

The whole review can be found HERE.

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East Coast liberals love Hank. At least somebody at the New York Times does. The prestigious paper has published another article on Hank. I’ve been surprised by the number of Hank stories in The Times just since I started this blog in November of  2008.

Sadly, like much  recent activity about Hank, the article focusses on the death of Hank Williams.

The piece in the Friday August 13th edition is by Mary Woodroof and describes a journey to Oak Hill West Virginia the site of Hank Williams’ death in the early morning hours of January 1st 1953. By the way, Woodroof spends the first few paragraphs describing how her journey to Hank Williams’ music came through Emmy Lou Harris who was the subject of the previous post on this blog.

She describes her growing appreciation of Hank Williams in these words:

It was only after I’d had a lot of the pretentiousness knocked out of me by my own addiction struggles that I came to understand all this was beside the point. Hank Williams didn’t write songs for hillbillies; he wrote songs for anybody interested in facing life with a modicum of openness and honesty.

Woodroof describes her conversations with Oak Hill natives as she seeks to find the filling station where it was discovered that Hank Williams was dead. She describes her feeling at the now vacant site of Burdette’s Pure Oil.

To me, there is no romance in such a death; and not much in the life that leads to it. I get to say this because I, too, once flirted seriously with self-destruction and know that when you’re an addict, the rest of your life is a shadow no matter how many songs you write or places  you go or people you please. Or how many good times you have, for that matter. There’s no bargaining with alcohol and drugs once you have to have them. You either stop drinking and using or you die.

The article is called ‘Sharing Demons with Hank Williams’. Martha Woodroof is a novelist and works at public radio station WMRA in Virginia.

Here’s the link.

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I’m really enjoying a new blog about Emmylou Harris.

It’s by the blogger Citizen K  who I have linked to on the Blogroll to the right since he wrote a great review of Hank Williams The Unreleased Recordings. He’s pledging to put up a new post about Emmylou everyday for 365 days. So far it’s been great. One entry featured video of Kitty Wells singing ‘Making Believe’ with Emmylou’s version as well.

His latest entry is a video of Emmylou singing the song about the death of Hank Williams called ‘Rollin and Ramblin’.

I wrote a post about this song quite a while ago. Here it is.

Update: When you go to the link above, you will find a very good comment by Beecher O’Quinn on portrayals of the life of Hank Williams, as well as a reply from me.

Here’s the link to the great new blog 365 days of Emmylou Harris.

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