I Saw the Light

The Story of Hank Williams


By William MacEwen

By George Merritt

By Colin Escott

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The book that inspired the major motion picture I Saw the Light.

In his brief life, Hank Williams created one of the defining bodies of American music. Songs such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya” sold millions of records and became the model for virtually all country music that followed. But by the time of his death at age twenty-nine, Williams had drunk and drugged and philandered his way through two messy marriages and out of his headline spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Even though he was country music’s top seller, toward the end he was so famously unreliable that he was lucky to get a booking in a beer hall.

Colin Escott’s enthralling, definitive biograph — now the basis of the major motion picture I Saw the Light — vividly details the singer’s stunning rise and his spectacular decline, revealing much that was previously unknown or hidden about the life of this country music legend.

Originally published as Hank William: The Biography.


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HANK Williams has been dead for fifty years. In fact, it was fifty years ago the night of this writing that he began his last journey. Knowing all that we now know about the precise route, it's tempting to look at the clock and imagine where he was. It's equally tempting to wonder if he knew where he was. Midnight struck for Hank Williams somewhere on that last eerie road trip. But where? Born in the oppressive heat and humidity of south Alabama, he almost certainly died with snow in his headlights.

Ten years ago, I was finishing the first edition of this book. I clearly remember working on New Year's Eve 1992, having much the same thoughts as I have now. Where was he forty years ago tonight? If asked, I wouldn't have bet on too much new information turning up between the fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of his death. Perhaps a couple of interviewees who'd eluded us would emerge; perhaps one or two who'd avoided us would cooperate; perhaps a few recordings would turn up. I thought our little book would otherwise stand unchallenged and unchanged. But I was wrong. Several of Hank's former bandmembers, long thought lost, have indeed come forward. Many new recordings have been uncovered. Hank's sister, Irene, died, leaving a trove of photos, papers, and memorabilia that no one knew she possessed. Another trove of legal correspondence has surfaced, and beneath the lawyers' dry concision there's a sense of the bitter conflict that drove one legal action after another, year upon year. Crucial information has emerged on the blues musician, "Tee-Tot," who taught Hank. Even more information has surfaced on the long car ride during which Hank died and the bogus doctor who treated Hank with such disastrous results over his last weeks.

As early as New Year's Day 1953, Hank Williams became an object. Parties wrestled over him, not only as if he wasn't there (which, of course, he wasn't), but as if he'd never been there. He was like an antique to which several family members laid claim. Yet the reason that the legal actions continue year after year is that the small body of work left to us grows in importance. Every year, several hundred thousand people buy a Hank Williams CD. Surely longtime fans aren't buying these records. Thanks to the record companies, longtime fans have every hit several times over. Those several hundred thousand new sales must, for the greater part, represent a new audience discovering the truths that we discovered all those years ago. It seems as though the sterner stuff survives. Both Frank Sinatra and Perry Como sold millions of records, yet it's Sinatra's dark soliloquies that have lasted while Como's records remain trapped in their place and time. Bruce Springsteen's bleakly minimalist Nebraska dismayed the stadium rock crowd on release in 1982, but now sounds better with every passing year. The fierce, insurgent music of Hank Williams still reaches us in a way that the cheerier music of Eddy Arnold and Red Foley does not. Yet, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Arnold and Foley comfortably outsold Hank Williams.

Hank Williams had the great fortune to come and go at exactly the right time. Most of his contemporaries lived long enough to make some very bad records; Hank didn't. Most of his contemporaries had to come to terms first with rock 'n' roll, then with the Nashville Sound; Hank didn't. Several of his contemporaries found themselves hawking remakes of their greatest hits on cable television; Hank didn't. Death is a good career move if it can be timed right, and no one ever timed it better than Hank Williams. In terms of forging a legend, he could have done no better than burn out at twenty-nine before his fire grew dim and the face of country music changed. His death left what is still the most important body of work in country music; in fact, one of the defining caches of American music. It also left the tantalizing promise of what might have been.

Perhaps the next ten years will see as much new information emerge as has emerged in the last ten years, but that's no reason to hold off this revision. For a few weeks in 1994, we flattered ourselves into believing that our old work was definitive. That's no longer the case. Enough new information has surfaced to warrant a complete rewrite, and so many new photos have been found that Kira Florita and I coproduced a photo-essay, Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway (DaCapo Press, 2001), which serves as a companion piece to this work.

Thinking about Hank Williams, I return endlessly to a poem I learned back in England when I was a child, A. E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young." Housman says much that I've struggled to say when called upon to explain the iconic power of Hank Williams. Here it is, in part.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut

Cannot see the record cut,

And silence sounds no worse than cheers

After earth has stopped the ears;

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

Colin Escott

New Year's Eve 2002

South Central Alabama

Chapter 1

The road to that bright happy region

Is narrow and twisted, they say

But the broad one that leads to perdition

Is posted and blazed all the way.

"The Drifting Cowboy's Dream" (unknown)




THE Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east, will, according to the Book of Matthew, be the gathering place when the dead rise upon the Messiah's return. Those buried on the Mount will be the first to rise, and will have pride of place at the Messiah's side. As a child, Hank Williams would not go to sleep unless a Bible lay beside him in bed, so he inevitably learned about the Mount of Olives, but had he returned to his birthplace in Mount Olive, Alabama, he would have seen a red-dirt settlement of half a dozen houses strung desultorily along an unpaved road. Not even a crossroads. The few souls that resided there eked out a living as farmers or as indentured employees of the lumber companies opening up the dark, coniferous forests of south Alabama.

Hank was the third and last child of Elonzo "Lon" Huble Williams and his wife Jessie Lillybelle "Lilly" Skipper Williams. Their first child was alive at birth but died soon after; it's unknown if he or she was even named. Lon and Lilly's second child, Irene, was born on August 8, 1922; Hank followed on September 17, 1923. According to Lon, Hank was to be christened Hiram, after King Hiram of Tyre in the Book of Kings, but when he was belatedly registered with the Bureau of Vital Statistics at the age of ten, it was as "Hiriam." Friends, family, and neighbors called the boy "Harm" or "Skeets." He was born at home in a double-pen log house known as the Kendrick Place because it had been built in the late 1800s by Mr. Wiley Kendrick and his wife, Fanny. Lon proudly told Hank's first biographer, Roger Williams, that he paid thirty-five dollars to have a doctor in attendance, and had enough money set aside to hire a black nanny.

Lon Williams was thirty-one years old when Hank arrived. Lon was born on December 23, 1891, in Macedonia in Lowndes County, Alabama. His family came from North Carolina, and the surviving photo of his grandmother shows a woman with high Indian cheekbones and deep-set eyes. Hank always said he was part Indian, and there was probably some Creek or Cherokee on his father's side. Lon's mother, Martha Ann Autrey Williams, committed suicide when he was six. Lon would tell his children about the time he found his mother dead; sometimes he said she drank rat poison, other times he said she hanged herself. Never did he say why. His father, Irvin, moved the family to McWilliams, Alabama, a lumber company town some thirty miles from Greenville. Irvin died in 1909 when Lon was seventeen, but from the time he was twelve, Lon drifted, working as a water boy, ox driver, or anything else he could get. He grew up without a father just as Hank would, just as Hank Jr. would. Hank Jr.'s children might have wished he was around more, too.

Jessie Lillybelle Skipper was a delicate name for a woman who, had she been a canary, would have sung bass. Born in Butler County on August 12, 1898, Lilly was a large, broad-boned woman, and the one thing that everyone agrees upon is that she didn't take no crap. Quite what Lon saw in her, or she saw in Lon, is unclear; later in life, neither could mention the other's name without a curse. Lilly ruled every one of her roosts with a steely sense of purpose, hardened by having to deal with one feckless, useless man after another. She could be funny, even tender, but always formidably strong willed, and not much given to self-doubt.

The Skippers lived for a while around Chapman, Alabama, and Lon was probably working near there on a lumber train crew when he met Lilly. She was eighteen, almost a spinster, when they married on November 12, 1916. On July 9, 1918, as the First World War was drawing to a close, Lon was sent to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, then on to France with the 113th Regiment of Engineers, 42nd Division. Shortly after arriving, he suffered an injury, but not one sustained in combat. He later told his family that he'd fallen from a truck while hauling rocks, although others in the family heard that he'd gotten into a fight with another soldier, reportedly over a French girl. He either fell from the truck onto his head or was struck on the side of his head in the fight. He spent about a week in the base hospital before being shipped back to the front. He seemed to have recovered, but it was an injury that would come back to haunt him.

On June 26, 1919, Lon was discharged from Camp Gordon, Georgia, returned to Alabama, and began working for the lumber companies. The company crews ran narrow-gauge railroad tracks up to the logging sites, and entire families lived on-site in boxcars for weeks or months at a stretch. Lon drove the log trains, and worked, as he was fond of saying, "from can to cain't."

When Irene and Hank arrived, though, Lon and Lilly were renting the old Kendrick place for eighty dollars a year, and running a small strawberry farm with a country store on one end of their house. Then a late frost hit, probably in the spring of 1924, and Lon was forced back to work for the lumber companies. He started with Ray Lumber in Atmore, then moved to W. T. Smith. By the time Lilly finally got around to registering Hank's birth in 1934, she stated that Lon was working as an engineer for the lumber companies when Hank was born, which was a few months shy of the truth.

Hank later said that his first recollection was of living in the W. T. Smith boxcar at the McKenzie camp near Chapman. Soon after that, Lon bought a house a mile and a half out of Georgiana and worked on the Ruthven job. Then, in 1927, he sold up and bought a house and ten acres in McWilliams, continuing on the Ruthven job for W. T. Smith until 1929. It was in McWilliams that Hank attended first and second grade. McWilliams was another tiny settlement almost entirely dependent upon the lumber business. Every house, every business was built of pine, and every man worked either for the lumber companies or for a business that depended on them. The Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad opened up the town around 1900, and it was as bustling as it ever was when Lon and Lilly moved there. It was insular and self-contained in the way that communities were when the mule was more commonly seen on the roads than an automobile.

Hank was his parents' child in every respect. Whether through propinquity or some mystery of DNA, Hank had Lilly's driving ambition, but it would be repeatedly subverted by Lon's tendency to backslide. Later, when he was berated for his drinking, Hank was fond of saying, "If you think I'm a drunk, you shoulda seen my old man" (although as Hank knew well, Lon had ceased drinking by then). For her part, Lilly saw some of Lon's lack of willpower and damnable sloth in Hank and cursed them both, telling her son that he was no better than his wastrel of a father.

Writing about Hank in a notoriously unreliable memoir called Life Story of Our Hank Williams, Lilly said that he always liked to sing, but so do most children. Looking now down the wrong end of the telescope, it's hard to tell if Hank was the wunderkind in whom talent was innate, or if he simply had a bent for music that he nurtured until it became the easiest way he knew of making a living. Between Lon and Lilly there was some musical talent. Lon played the Jew's harp, and Lilly played the organ at the Mount Olive Baptist Church and at other churches they attended. Her father, John, wrote folk hymns. She sang in her strong, resonant voice, which some said could make the skin tingle on your neck. She loved to tell how Hank always sat beside her and sang too, and Hank certainly seemed to view those Sundays at his mother's side as the beginning of it all. "My earliest memory," he told journalist Ralph J. Gleason, "is sittin' on that organ stool by her and hollerin'. I must have been five, six years old, and louder 'n anybody else."

One reason that Hank might have been drawn to music is that he knew from an early age that he wasn't as physically strong as most kids, and was unsuited to logging or farming. Lon told a couple of interviewers that there was a raised spot on the boy's spine, but neither he nor Lilly understood what it was. In all likelihood, it was the first sign of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the vertebral arches of the spine fail to unite, allowing the spinal cord to herniate or protrude through the spinal column. That birth defect would determine the outcome of Hank's life every bit as much as his love of music. From the beginning, he was frail and spindly, and much as he wanted to join in sports, he lacked the physical coordination and stamina. He grew up in a community with strong shared values, chief among them pride in physical strength. His apartness stemmed in great measure from his physical affliction. One of his earliest published songs was "Back Ache Blues," and it would be the one kind of blues he knew all too well throughout his life.

In 1928 or 1929, shortly after moving back to McWilliams, Lon's face slowly became paralyzed; he couldn't blink and couldn't smile. As his condition worsened, he quit W. T. Smith to take a lighter job with Ralph Lumber in Bolling, and in September 1929, he ceased work altogether. The following January, Lilly took him to the Veterans Administration hospital in Pensacola, Florida. From there, he was transferred to the V.A. hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana. Lilly wrote later that he had been gassed and shell-shocked, but Lon told his family that he had a brain aneurysm, probably as a result of the injury in France. He stayed in Alexandria until January 1937. Hank was six when Lon left, and while Lilly was more than up to the task of raising her children by herself, Lon's absence only heightened Hank's isolation. Perhaps the most heartwrenching unpublished song in his early notebooks is one titled "I Wish I Had a Dad":

When he said, "What do you want that 'til now you haven't had?"

I said, "You was it once. Could you be again? I want a full-time Dad."

After Lon left, Lilly's brother-in-law, Walter McNeil, moved the family into Garland to live with them and Lilly's mother. Lilly then scrimped and saved enough to move her brood into Georgiana, the first town of any size Hank had ever lived in. It had been founded in 1855 by Pitts Milner, a preacher with a capitalistic streak. He got into the sawmill business and named the town Pittsville in his honor. Then his daughter, Georgiana, fell into a bog and suffocated, so he renamed the settlement in her memory. The Williamses joined fifteen hundred others in Georgiana, 30 percent of them black. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad bisected the town's stores, gins, and other businesses.

The first house Lilly, Irene, and Hank lived in was a dilapidated wooden shack on old Highway 31 (the major north-south route through the South), but it burned down a few months later. Lilly and the children ran out wearing only their nightgowns. Lilly grabbed Lon's shotgun as she was leaving. They moved back with the McNeils for a while, and then, as Irene wrote in the Washington Post, "Mother found a small house to rent near the railroad tracks, and she put Hank, me and our few belongings on a wagon and started toward that little house. On the way she stopped to mail a letter. A man walked up to her in the post office and asked if she was the lady whose house had burned. 'I am Thaddeus B. Rose,' he told her. 'I have a house you are welcome to rent free until you can get on your feet.'"

It was an imposing house, by far the finest dwelling Lilly, Irene, or Hank had ever been inside. These days, it's numbered 127 Rose Street, the street that Thaddeus B. Rose named for himself. He excavated the soil from beneath the house for another project, and ordered that the house be built on stilts, raising it six feet off the ground. Rose was one of Georgiana's grandees, a bachelor who lived away from the tracks. He later founded the Georgiana library, and local wisdom has it that he got the idea for the house on stilts from traveling in the swampland around New Orleans. A long hallway ran through the center of the house, the toilet was in an outhouse, and there was one faucet.

Lilly's possessions were few when she moved in. She stuffed feed sacks with corn shucks for beds, used apple boxes for her dresser, and cooked in the fireplace. Local families gave her what they could spare, but Lilly was determined that she would accept charity no longer than she had to. The Simses lived across the street, and Lilly gave them the impression that Lon was dead. "They had no money," said Harold Sims, who was four years older than Hank. "Most Sundays after church, my mother would ask me to take a platter of roast chicken, pork chops, rice and gravy, pie to them. They acted like they were counting on it."

Shortly after the Williamses moved into Rose's house, Lilly took on two more charges, her nieces Marie and Bernice McNeil, the daughters of her sister Annie Skipper and Annie's husband, Grover McNeil. After Annie died of typhoid fever, Grover paid for Lilly to care for Marie and Bernice, and they all became part of Hank's extended family. From time to time, Lilly looked after her mother too, all the while working as a practical nurse at what was called Tippins Hospital. The hospital was a large house that looked like a convalescent home, run by Dr. H. K. Tippins and his brother. Overnight care was offered, and Lilly was on night duty. She later prevailed upon Dr. Tippins to sign Hank's birth certificate. To supplement her income, she lobbied a local politician to collect Lon's full disability pension, and took in a couple of boarders, which gave her the idea of getting into the rooming house business.

Lilly fostered Hank's interest in singing, but she was determined that if he was to sing, it would be in praise of the Lord. She scraped together a few dollars and sent him to a shape-note singing school in Avant, near Georgiana. The hymns Hank learned there and in church every Sunday colored his approach to music as nothing else ever would. Black church music entered his life, too. "Wednesday evenings, me and Hiram would sit on a board fence around their house and listen to the Negro church," said his neighbor Harold Sims. "It was about a mile away. It was prayer meetin' night. The most beautiful music in the world. The breeze came from the south and it would undulate the sound. One minute soft, next minute loud, like it was orchestrated. One night, Hiram looked up at me and said, 'One day, I'm gonna write songs like that.'" Years later, Hank told his first wife, Audrey, that his favorite song was "Death Is Only a Dream"; its morbidity and superstition resonated within him in a way that the era's popular songs never did.

Sadly we sing and with tremulous breath

As we stand by the mystical stream,

In the valley and by the dark river of death,

And yet 'tis no more than a dream.

Much else informed Hank Williams' music, but the essence of it is there. From the holy songs, Hank learned how to express profound sentiments in words that an unlettered farmer could understand, and he came to appreciate music's spiritual component. He also loved the warm glow of recognition that the simple melodies elicited, and their effect was so profound that his own melodies would rarely be more complicated than the hymns and folk songs he heard as a child. On his radio shows later in life, he would almost always sing an old hymn, remembering every line of every verse. Hank was a believer, but not, in later life, a churchgoer. Perhaps he felt unworthy, perhaps his schedule didn't permit it, but even in beer joints he would sometimes throw everyone off guard with a hymn. Knowing himself to be a backslider, and knowing that he had been weighed in the balance and found wanting in so many ways, he seemed to find rare peace in the hymns of his childhood.

Another craft that Hank learned early in life was hawking. Lilly and Irene would roast peanuts and Hank would go out onto the streets of Georgiana and sell them. "The first day," wrote Lilly in a booklet not always given to accuracy, "he made thirty cents, and I remember how proud he was when he brought home the thirty cents' worth of stew meat, tomatoes and rice he bought with it. 'Mama,' he shouted, 'fix us some gumbo stew. We're gonna eat tonight!'" A more believable coda to the story came from Oscar Vickery, a neighbor of the Williamses after they moved to Greenville. He remembered Lilly counting the bags of peanuts before Hank left the house and counting the nickels that came back in. Even then, she didn't trust him, but even then Hank was outwitting her by taking a few peanuts from every bag and making up another bag and keeping a nickel for himself. Low cunning to get the better of a grasping woman was a skill that Hank would use the rest of his life.

At the beginning of the September 1933 school year, Hank moved to Fountain, Alabama, to live with his cousins, the McNeils. There was a high school in Georgiana, but not in Fountain, and the McNeils' daughter, Opal, was high school age. Hank was going to grammar school then, so he lived with the McNeils while Opal lived with Lilly and went to high school. For twenty-one years, Hank's uncle, Walter McNeil, was an engineer with W. T. Smith, moving the family from settlement to settlement. In Fountain, they lived in three boxcars, and Hank attended the single-room schoolhouse. His aunt Alice taught him some of the rudiments of music, and his cousin J.C. showed him what growing up in the woods was all about. "We'd fish, hunt," said J.C. "Hell, there was nothin' else to do. Every dog we'd find, we'd try and make it into a hunting dog. We hunted squirrels, rabbits." In interviews and in song, Hank would rhapsodize about rural life, but the year he spent with the McNeils was the last time he lived it. From the time he returned to Georgiana, he was a city boy, and the cities kept getting bigger.

The year with the McNeils also marked the beginning of Hank's drinking. He was eleven at the time. J.C.'s father, Walter, hid his liquor under his mattress, and Hank and J.C. would pour some out, then fill up Walter's bottle with water. Later, Hank and J.C. would watch to see where the loggers hid their hooch when they went to a social, then they'd sneak over, steal it, and make off into the woods. They'd drink, as the saying went around there, 'til they could have laid on the ground and fallen off it.

Hank returned to Georgiana in 1934. By now, he was performing on the streets and at the railroad station, taking requests and learning how to hold an audience. He pestered the town's old-time fiddlers to show him what they knew. Cade Durham was a cobbler who walked with a stick, smoking a stogie jammed into a cigar holder; Jim Warren owned a jewelry and instruments store. Both showed Hank the rudiments of hoedown fiddling and some major chords on the guitar. Late in life, Hank would play the fiddle only when he was in his cups, but throughout his early career he was a half-proficient hoedown fiddler. Where and when he got his first guitar has long been a matter of conjecture; he could have lined a wall with all the first guitars people claimed to have given him. Talking to Ralph Gleason, though, Hank said the first one came from his mother when he was eight, which more or less backs up what Lilly always said. Several people remember him practicing under the house on Rose Street. He would sit on an old car seat, pick out his chords, and sing. Lilly, who was trying to catch some sleep above, would lean out of the window and yell, "Harm, hush up that fuss."


On Sale
Nov 10, 2015
Page Count
400 pages

William MacEwen

About the Author

Colin Escott is an award-winning music historian and the author of four books, among them Hank Williams: The Biography and Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He lives in Nashville. 

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