Country legend Hank Williams, unfortunately, didn’t stick around this world for too long seeing that he died at the age of 29. The man lived fast: picking up music at an early age, reaching unprecedented success with his own radio show as a teenager, achieving his Grand Ole Opry debut by the age of 25, as well as finding the time to be married twice and have a couple of kids, too.
The woman who famously fueled his partying, addiction, and misery was Audrey Sheppard, his wife from 1944 to 1952. Their turbulent marriage provided inspiration for many of Williams’ most famous songs, including Your Cheatin’ Heart. Audrey tried to be a part of his country music life, but Williams once said, “It’s bad enough to have a wife who wants to sing. But it’s worse to have a wife who wants to sing and CAN’T.”
This is the story of Hank Williams and his fall from grace…
Hank Williams was like a walking book – even his name has a story behind it. As it turns out, he wasn’t born Hank Williams. His mother, Lillie, was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and his father Elonzo, was a Mason. They actually meant to call him Hiram Williams, after Hiram of Tyre (one of the three founders of the Masons). But that didn’t become his name, either.
Hank was born on September 17, 1923, and thanks to a misspelling on his birth certificate, his official birth name was recorded as “Hiriam.” As a child, he was called “Harm” by his family and “Herky” or “Poots” by his friends. Eventually, the name Hank stuck.
Hank was born with spina bifida occulta –a spinal condition that wasn’t well understood at the time. Sadly, it was never properly treated and caused Hank lifelong back pain. His back condition meant that he looked scrawny and a bit sickly, but he didn’t let it stop him and his future career in the music industry.
Hank “had a lot of nerve,” according to his cousin Taft Skipper. Skipper noted that Hank “would try most anything… he was pretty independent” In the book Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams. Hank’s father, who suffered facial paralysis because of a brain aneurysm, was hospitalized for most of Hank’s childhood, meaning all the responsibility for supporting the family fell onto his mother’s shoulders.
By the time Hank was seven, at the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, his mother was practically a single mom with a family to feed. But Lillie was remarkably resourceful. First, she moved the family to Garland and then to Georgiana, Alabama, where she managed to successfully run a series of boarding houses.
To help out, Hank was always picking up odd jobs. He sold peanuts and shined shoes on the corner to make a few coins. During the fall of 1933, when Hank was 10 years old, his mother sent him to stay with his aunt and uncle in a lumber camp 50 miles away in Monroe County, Alabama. It was there that the future country star explored what would become his two biggest passions: music and alcohol.
Music is what keeps people’s spirits up in times of difficulty. During the Depression, especially in places like Alabama, music was a big part of life. It was at the lumber camp where Hank lived with his aunt and uncle that he was first exposed to authentic Southern country music. Hank and his cousin, J.C. McNeil, were like two peas in a pod.
The two were inseparable and spent most of their time listening to music, whether it was gospel on Sunday mornings or the lively string band at the parties held on Saturday nights. At these parties, the adults would hide booze outside, but it wasn’t hard for the young boys to find the stash. Once Hank returned to Georgiana the next year, he had more sophisticated interests than a typical 11-year-old.
Story has it that Hank’s mother gave him his first guitar, but others wanted to take credit. Among them was a Ford dealer named Fred Thigpen and a store owner named Jim Warren, who supposedly recognized Hank’s talents and gave him his first musical instrument. But, according to Hank’s mother, she who bought him the guitar by selling peanuts.
Regardless of how he got his first guitar, one thing that remains undisputed is who deserves the credit for teaching Hank Williams how to play the guitar. And that person was a man named Rufus Payne. Payne, nicknamed Tee-Tot, was a street entertainer who performed blues music on the streets of Georgiana and Greenville when Williams was a boy.
Hank gave credit to Payne as his only real music teacher, according to the Alabama Historical Association. Although Payne died in 1939, his musical legacy lived on in Hank. In 1937, Williams relocated with his mother and sister to Montgomery – the biggest city he ever lived in. There, the opportunities for the young musician were plentiful.
During his free time, Hank would perform on the sidewalk outside of WSFA, the local Montgomery radio station. The producers noticed the boy’s talent and invited him to perform live on air. He was known as the “Singing Kid,” and he got so popular that he became a regular feature at the radio station, even hosting his own show twice a week. By 14, Hank was making $15 a week performing on WSFA.
His solo radio shows were successful, but he decided that if he really wanted to take his career as a country star to the next level, he was going to need to form a band. Using his radio show money, he linked up with another young musician by the name of Smith Adair, and together they formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys.
They started touring around Alabama, charging 25 cents a show. However, the problem was that Hank was still a young teenager, and he had to schedule their performance dates around his school schedule. It ultimately got to be too much, and so in October of 1939, he dropped out of school to focus on his band.
His mother became he band’s manager, booking their gigs in dance halls and honky-tonks, and collecting the money. Lillie Williams worked hard for the band, but she wasn’t the most liked member of the team. According to band member Sammy Pruett, “none of us dug her too damn much.”
The Drifting Cowboys were a popular act, but by the time Hank turned 16, he already had a drinking problem. You see, booze was readily available at most of their shows, and Hank took full advantage, which ended up causing tension among the band members. Boots Harris, a former member of the band, recalled that Hank “was pretty bad into the drink … I’d already quit him once because of the drinking … I said, ‘if you keep drinkin’ ain’t nobody in the business gonna pay us no attention.”
By the time the United States joined World War II in 1941, the Drifting Cowboys were already starting to come apart. By 1942, each member of the band had been drafted into the Army, except for Hank. Because of his bad back, he received a 4-F deferment, meaning he didn’t need to serve in the Army. But his band was now long gone.
It turned out that many young musicians were leaving to fight in the war, and if there were any remaining potential replacements, they all refused to work with Hank on account of his drunkenness and unreliability. Even the WSFA radio station was fed up with his behavior, and by August 1942, Hank was let go from the station due to his “habitual drunkenness.”
At that point, Hank decided to leave the music industry altogether. He responded to an advertisement he saw from Kaiser Shipbuilding, a shipyard company in Portland, Oregon. The ad promised a free one-way ticket, professional training, free accommodations, and a steady pay wage for anyone willing to work.
He went for it, but the truth is Hank wasn’t cut out for any shipyard work (because of his back problems) and he didn’t last long in Oregon. In November 1942, he was on his way back to Alabama, working on and off for the duration of the war at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile. Soon, he would be back in the music world.
As the end of the war neared, Hank returned to the stage, but by that point he had become less popular than during the days of his radio show. He made ends meet, however, performing in small medicine shows where he would pitch cure-alls to crowds from a flatbed trailer. It was at one of these shows in Banks, Alabama during the summer of 1943 that he met Audrey Sheppard.
The striking blonde, caught Hank’s attention almost immediately. She was headstrong, recently divorced with a 2-year-old, and also a musician. The two hit it off, so much so that Hank didn’t wait to propose. They got hitched in 1944, but it wasn’t exactly legal.
A Justice of the Peace married the young couple in front of a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama. The problem was that it occurred before Audrey completed the required 60-day period following her divorce from her first husband. But young love can’t wait, and so they married anyway and started touring together.
Audrey was ambitious and focused on the future, while Hank was just trying to get by. She convinced him to move to Montgomery and start a new band with her – in order to get his music back on the radio. She played the bass and sang vocals with a reformed version of the Drifting Cowboys. Eventually, she took over her mother-in-law’s role as Hank’s manager.
As soon as they hooked up romantically and musically, Hank began to see real success. She spoke to a record executive of Acuff-Rose, Fred Rose, and convinced him to give Hank’s music a listen. He ended up signing a six-song contract first with Acuff-Rose Music and later with MGM Records, where he released many of his most famous hits.
But it wasn’t an instant rise to stardom as Hank did fail in his audition at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville at first. Nonetheless, Hank was making waves and beginning to make a name for himself again. Around this time, Audrey was increasingly interested in performing. The couple teamed up again for various records.
When Hank first auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, he didn’t make the cut. But, in 1949, following the release of his hit Lovesick Blues, things changed. On June 11, 1949, Hank Williams made his live Grand Ole Opry debut. His performance was so successful that the crowd demanded six encores before the show could go on.
He was then invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry’s first-ever European tour, doing shows at military bases overseas. Williams was living the dream, but it only lasted three years. When his drinking problem worsened, Opry executives lost patience. The station’s advertising head, Irving Waugh, said, “It got to a point where he’d disappear for weeks at a time. Nobody would know where he was.” In 1952, Hank was fired from the Grand Ole Opry since he failed to show up to Opry-sponsored appearances.
Audrey and Hank sang together on Lost on the River, Dear Brothers, The Pale Horse and His Rider, I Want to Live and Love, Where the Soul of Man Never Dies, Something Got a Hold of Me, and Jesus Died for Me. Their marriage, and their musical union, involved many illusions. The romantics can look back at them and romanticize their vocals together.
But they are either unable to or unwilling to acknowledge that only one of the pair sang on key and in meter. (It wasn’t her.) During the peak years of his fame, many people considered Audrey a burden because she insisted on singing together. There were times when Hank would shrug and allow her to sing as she did.
At other times, however, Hank would actually bar her from singing. Shamefully, he roughed her up to keep her away from the microphone. Audrey had a brief music contract, with the label Decca, resulting in eight (unlistenable) songs in 1950. But Audrey’s singing was just one problem in their marriage.
There were other issues that ultimately led to the couple’s divorce. The marriage was tainted by Hank’s alcoholism, substance abuse and cheating. Regardless of the turmoil, Hank and Audrey had a son, Randall Hank Williams Jr., in 1949. Audrey spent her time taking care of Hank Jr. and trying to build a career for herself.
At a certain point, Hank’s addiction was driving a wedge in their marriage. Audrey eventually gave him an ultimatum: It was either her or the alcohol. Although Hank claimed to have chosen her, telling her he couldn’t live without her, they eventually divorced in 1952. Audrey got the house and full custody of Hank Jr.
In addition, she was granted half of her ex-husband’s royalties, on the condition that she remain single, which she did. Her daughter Lycrecia eventually revealed that her mother blamed herself for Hank’s downfall. Her self-blame was so deep that she, too, became an alcoholic. It didn’t help that her music career was an epic fail and that her own son abandoned her.
Let’s rewind just a bit to the point in the story where Hank and Audrey split up. Despite their volatile marriage, Hank wasn’t scared away from the institution of marriage entirely. In 1952, when he started performing with the Louisiana Hayride and was on tour in Shreveport, he met a young woman named Billie Jean Jones.
The 19-year-old high school dropout had separated from her husband by the time she met Hank. According to Billie Jean, Hank said to her, “If you ain’t married, Ol’ Hank’s gonna marry you. You’re about the purtiest thing I ever saw.” As with Audrey, Hank didn’t want to wait to get married. And so, on October 28, 1952, they wed in Louisiana.
She may have been pretty, but their relationship was ugly from the start. Billie Jean tried her hardest to keep Hank sober. She tried to enforce a limit of two cans of beer. “If he got more, I’d force milk and two raw eggs down him, then I’d call my brothers to pack him off to the hospital,” she recalled. But booze wasn’t all of it. Hank was also addicted to pain pills.
Back in 1941, when he briefly joined a rodeo in Texas, his back condition worsened after he suffered a fall. He had to undergo surgery, and the operation marked the beginning of a new addiction to pain medication.
In 1951, he was victim to another accident while he was hunting. This time, Hank underwent a spinal fusion operation, and the difficult recovery left him even more dependent on painkillers such as morphine. Meanwhile, Hank was self-medicating with alcohol, too. While he did try to get sober at various points in his life, it never lasted long.
He checked into the North Louisiana Sanitarium during the fall of 1951, but in vain. After that, his health deteriorated quickly. He started to put on weight and lose his hair. Let me remind you that he was only in his late 20s. A man of his age should not be aging as quickly.
Afterward, he began to deteriorate physically, putting on weight and losing his hair. Near the end of 1951, Hank suffered a minor heart attack, and, by the end of 1952, he was unable to continue touring. At that point, his mother flew him home to Montgomery to try to get him to recover. That year, Hank Williams met a man who went by the name of Doc Marshall. This meeting would prove to be an unlucky one.
The man’s real name was Horace “Toby” Marshall, and, no, he was not a real doctor. He was actually a high school dropout who simply paid $35 to get a fake degree from the Chicago School of Applied Sciences as a “Doctor of Science and Psychology.”
The truth is that Marshall had been arrested previously for forgery and armed robbery. He was clearly a skilled conman who knew a “good patient” when he saw one. When he met Hank, he hinted at a “pleasant” way to handle his host of ailments and problems of exhaustion, depression, insomnia.
Marshall convinced Hank to make him his personal physician, at a cost, of course, of $300 a week. Under the name Dr. C.W. Lemon, Marshall forged a series of fraudulent prescriptions for drugs, including morphine, barbiturates, amphetamines, and chloral hydrate. Without a doubt these contributed to Hank’s already failing health. Even after his death, the Williams family received a bill from Marshall for $736.39 for his services.
Despite his health problems, Hank still wanted to go ahead with his scheduled performances on New Year’s Eve 1952 and New Year’s Day. The first show was scheduled for Charleston, West Virginia, but an ice storm delayed his travel. Unable to fly, Hank hired a driver named Charles Carr to take him to Canton, Ohio for the New Year’s Day show.
They stopped at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Hank began to feel ill. He was hiccupping and convulsing, so Carr called a doctor to the singer’s room. The doctor reportedly injected Hank with B6 and B12 and declared him fit for travel the next morning.
But when the morning came, he was still unwell, curled up in the backseat of the car and telling his driver that all he wanted was to sleep. Somewhere around Oak Hill, West Virginia, Carr looked around his shoulder into the backseat and noticed that Hank seemed cold and unresponsive. Carr recalled that “I thought he was asleep … I reached over and touched him. He was cold.”
Carr immediately pulled into a gas station to get directions to the nearest hospital. It was too late, though. By the time they arrived at Oak Hill Hospital, Hank was already dead. It was January 1, 1953, and Hank Williams was only 29 years old.
In a rather tragic turn of events, it was only after his death that his daughter Jett was born from one of his extramarital affairs. During the summer of 1952, Hank had a brief affair with a dancer named Bobbie Jett. He never intended to stay with her since he was married to Billie Jean. But shortly before his wedding to Billie Jean, Hank learned that Bobbie was pregnant.
His daughter, christened Antha Belle Jett, was born five days after her father’s death. Hank’s mother adopted the baby, but after Lillie passed away in 1955, three years after her son’s death, Jett became a ward of the state before she was eventually adopted by another couple. Jett never knew that she was Hank Williams’ daughter until the early 1980s.
Jett only discovered that she was Hank Williams’ daughter when her adoptive father disclosed the information when she turned 21. Her heritage wasn’t legally recognized until 1987, and therefore she wasn’t granted rights to her birth father’s estate until 1989. Eventually, Jett Williams became an accomplished musician in her own right.
Speaking of legal battles, the legality of Hanks and Billie Jean’s marriage would cause trouble for Billie Jean. Following his death, both she and Audrey battled over his estate, each one competing over the title of Hank Williams’ widow. In 1953, Billie Jean went to court, but it was ruled that their marriage was, in fact, illegal. She ended up receiving a $30,000 settlement and giving up all rights to his estate and name.
In 2006, a janitor who was working for Sony/ATV Music Publishing found unfinished lyrics written by Hank Williams in a dumpster. The lyrics were originally found in his car the night he died. The janitor claimed that she sold the lyrics to a representative of the Honky-Tonk Hall of Fame and the Rock-N-Roll Roadshow.
The janitor was later accused of theft, but the charges were dropped when the judge determined that her account of the events was true. The unfinished lyrics were eventually returned to Sony/ATV, and, in 2008, they were given to Bob Dylan for a new album. The exchange resulted in the 2011 album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, including recordings by Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, and Merle Haggard.
Hank’s legacy continued with his son Hank Jr., who also became a singer. Hank Jr. had a son of his own whom he named Hank Williams III. And, yes, he too became a musician. Hank Jr. and his son joined forces and made an album with their late father and grandfather, posthumously, using the late singer’s old songs.
The 1996 album is called Three Hanks: Men with Broken Hearts. Sadly, tragedy – along with the name Hank – runs in the family. Hank Jr.’s daughter died in a car crash in June 2020. Katherine Williams-Dunning was just 27 years old when she died. Her husband Tyler Dunning, who was also in the car, survived. Hank Jr.’s other children, Sam, Holly, and Hillary Williams, all became musicians as well.
For years, Hank Jr. dealt with the debris of his parents’ divorce, as well as his father’s death and the public perception of him being the son of the iconic singer. By 1979, Hank Jr. (aka Bocephus) honed his image as a rebel child with his own outlaw persona. Beginning with the song Family Tradition, he earned himself a string of platinum albums and hit singles.
His album Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound ended off with a compelling story he wrote and recorded with his friend and fellow country singer Waylon Jennings. In the song The Conversation Hank Jr. demystifies the tale of his father’s death and recounts how it affected him. In the song, both country artists paid tribute to one of the most influential songwriters of all time.