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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In connection with my last post, I came across  the lyrics to a song about the death of Hank Williams released by Emmylou Harris. The song is from a 1990 album called ‘Brand New Dance’ which according to Amazon has been discontinued. However the album and song are available as MP3 downloads. Here are the lyrics. 

Rollin’ and Ramblin’ (The Death of Hank Williams) written by (Robin Williams/Linda Williams/Jerome Clark)

Folks in Nashville slammed the door
Said we don’t want you anymore
Find your own way down the road
Pack your fiddle and your guitar
Take a train or take a car
Find someone else to keep you from the cold

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

Oh, he always sang the blues
Like it was all he ever knew
He didn’t sing at all that night
He was pale and as he dozed
He didn’t know his time had closed
Slumped in the back seat to the right.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

So they send him on night train, South
Through the cities and the rural routes
Just one more place to go
Ah, the whistle sang the bluest note
Like it came from his own throat
Moanin’ sad and cryin’ low.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
Women loved him half to death
He sang with whiskey on his breath
His heart broke like a child’s.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

Rollin’ and ramblin’
The sun has set out on the trail
The hobo’s drifted up the rail
He’s taken his last ride.

I’ve always been an Emmylou Harris fan and my vinyl collection has a few of her great albums from the ‘Luxury Liner’ period.

Of course Emmylou had an early relationship with Gram Parsons the late tragic musical figure who headed up one of the greatest Country Music groups of all time, The Flying Burrito Brothers, who fulfilled the legacy of Hank Williams more than any other country artists I can think of right now. I have their double vinyl album from many years ago.

I don’t know anything about these songwriters, but the lyrics to this song pretty much capture the lonely, tragic, and yes  betrayed and abandoned last days of Hank Williams.

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SPECIAL NOTE: For those landing here from a search, this is to let y0u know that I did a post on the new major motion picture on Hank’s life which was announced August 2009. It’s here.

AND, Here’s my post on the latest news on the film ‘The Last Ride’ being filmed in central Arkansas. (February 19, 2010)

The Register Herald newspaper in Beckley West Virginia is reporting that a film about Hank Williams life including his final days is in pre production. I hope the author and producers look at the tragic nature of that last lonley trip. Why did everybody let him down so badly?

Jeff Queen a Deputy Sheriff from Auburn Alabama plans to call the movie ‘Lonesome Cowboy’. He’s hoping to get production underway by the end of the year, and will film some scenes in West Virginia. The paper reports:

“We want to tell the real story,” says Queen, who helps keep law and order in the same town that is home to his beloved Crimson Tide.

“Just like they did in ‘Walk the Line’ with Johnny Cash’s addictions. But we certainly don’t want to tabloidize anything. We just want to tell it from the heart as real as we can make it — the good, the bad, everything in between.”

Queen drew his inspiration from “Hank,” a biography written by Ralph Moore in Lineville, Ala., a stalwart fan, one of many who have made several excursions into southern West Virginia seeking support for a Williams museum.

Queen says 22 year old Christopher Malpass is being looked at to play the title role in the film which Queen hopes can be used to boost tourism in Alabama.

The mythical status of Hank Williams is certainly well illustrated by this continuing interest in West Virginia and the area around Oak Hill where Hank’s lifeless body was found in the back of his Cadillac on New Years eve as he was being driven to a concert in Canton Ohio.

He was accompanied only by a teenaged driver, Charles Carr, who had just turned 18.

I’m not an expert on Hank Williams’ death and his final days and the multitude of details, some disputed, which have been published about that unfinished  trip from Montgomery to Canton. There have been a lot of tales and rumours published about those final days some probably more verifiable than others.

But you don’t need to know anything about the details of the journey to ask the really important question: Why was Hank ALONE?

A superstar with just a teenaged kid driving him across America, heading north in the dead of winter. No one could fault the youngster in any way, but in every real important way, Hank Williams made this journey alone.

Here we are in 2009 and music stars have entourages, body guards, handlers, flacks, public relations and media reps and whatever, all offering layers of protection and eating up their money.

Now we all know it was far different in late 1952.

I’m not blaming anybody, and my knowledge like most fans is limited. But where were friends, family, MGM Records, Acuff Rose publications, even the Opry which had recently fired Hank?

In those days stars traveled with their bands and in this case Don Helms of the ‘Drifting Cowboys’ was going to meet Hank in Canton, and Jerry Rivers was stopped by bad weather. But  I’ll say it again, I still can’t beleive he was allowed to travel that distasnce for all intents and purposes alone.

I know Hank Williams experts, and I am certainly not one of those, will have a thousand explanations as to why this happened. First of course was the weather, which disrupted the original plan to fly to Canton. Then of course there is  Hank’s continuing back pain and ill health and his addictions  and demons. He probably wanted fewer people around and less busy bodies to interfere with what had become his tragic lifestyle.. Carr,I suppose, was somebody who could not argue or talk back.

But I can’t imagine Eddy Arnold or George Morgan, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe or imagine even a Frank Sinatra, or Bing Crosby on the road like this alone.  Never.

I hope the film can capture his triumphant life  and the lonely tragedy that engulfed Hank Williams in his final days.

I checked my small collections of biographies in writing this:

Jerry Rivers, 1967, ‘From Life to Legend’

Jay Caress, 1979, ‘Hank Williams, County Music’s Tragic King’

Colin Escott, 1994, ‘Hank Williams, The Biography’

Paul Hemphill, 2005, ‘Lovesick Blues, The Life of Hank Williams’

I find after you read this stuff you have to go back to the records for a while to get your head straight again and restore your belief in the majesty of his achievement.

The Newspaper article is here.

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