In a quiet residential neighborhood of a small Alabama town, Georgiana, a white-paneled house bears a banner proclaiming itself, “Hank Williams Sr. Boyhood Home & Museum.” Inside, a back bedroom wall is devoted to photocopied newspaper clippings concerning the country singer’s death and funeral, as well as a crude, hand-drawn map showing the route of his last ride. This cross country road trip also features prominently in another room, one devoted to a large, handmade quilt entitled, “The Story of Hiram Hank Williams.” Towards the bottom of the quilt, a small panel offers a crudely stitched image of a blue car and this simple narrative:
NEW YEARS DAY 1953 HIS CURRENT HIT SONG WAS I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE AT THE AGE OF 29 HANK WILLIAMS SR. DIED IN THE BACK SEAT OF HIS CADILLAC SOMEWHERE BETWEEN KNOXVILLE, TENN. AND OAK HILL, WEST VIRGINIA WHILE ENROUTE TO A SHOW IN CANTON, OHIO.
Georgiana’s display is nothing, of course, compared to Montgomery’s decidedly more upscale Hank Williams Museum, which features the car itself and literally begins with the singer’s death. As you cross through the wood partitions leading into the museum, the first thing to catch your eye is the light blue Cadillac convertible. More subtly, and even closer to the entrance, are two paintings: one of the Cadillac and one that adds Hank himself cockily propped against the car’s bumper, looking out of the canvas. And next to the paintings? Look closely— That’s the last photo of the singer ever taken, his features a little puffy, his lips posed in front of a microphone in a drunken curl. And wait. There’s more. You probably didn’t notice it at first, so small and unassuming in these surroundings, but directly to the left of the photo and paintings sits a tiny portable DVD player. Its undersized screen presents grainy footage from the singer’s funeral playing in a never-ending loop. So there you have it. Hank Williams: The Man Who Died.
When you finally do make it those few steps to the Cadillac, you’re confronted by a large, white plastic box, on which the instructions read, “Push button to hear details about the ’52 Cadillac.” The voice the box emits is male and surprisingly forceful, speaking the words with the lusty delivery of a car salesman. This seems appropriate as the voice begins to list the car’s features—eggshell blue paint, 331 engine, whitewall tires, custom blue and black leather interior—and the manly tone doesn’t much change once the voice gets around to informing you that Hank died in the Cadillac’s backseat. The disconnect between tone and content is mimicked in the car’s display, carefully lit and emphasizing the vehicle’s beauty, all the while reminding you that its most important role was essentially as a high-end, mobile casket.
“A high-end, mobile casket”
Surrounding the Cadillac, a dark wooden rail has been dotted with small metal plaques featuring the names of museum donors. Among all these names, white signs unobtrusively offer additional information: the singer’s “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” was number one on the country charts the day that he died (this popular and misleading tidbit neglects to mention that the song shot up the charts after the news of Hank’s death broke), and the vehicle’s post-Hank ownership history included the singer’s mother, then his sister, then his ex-wife, and finally, Hank Williams Jr., who used to drive the Cadillac while attending high school.
This last fact—that a teenage Junior (or Bocephus, as his father used to call him) tooled around for several years in the car that his father died in—gains an extra layer of morbid appropriateness when you consider that at the time of Hank’s death the singer’s driver was only a teenager himself. Charles Carr, hired on short notice from his father’s taxi company, was seventeen at the time of the infamous three day road trip originally meant to stretch from Montgomery to Canton, Ohio, where Hank had been scheduled to play as part of a New Year’s celebration.
In many ways, Charles Carr, rather than the singer himself, might be considered the central figure of the Death Ride, and his general reticence to discuss those three days has certainly helped add to the legend, as has his steadfast assertion that even he doesn’t know precisely where or when during the drive Hank passed. This vagueness unquestionably adds to the allure of retracing the fateful trip, encouraging fantasies that there are aspects of the singer’s death that remain to be puzzled out, as if by putting yourself in the boy’s position, you might gain some further understanding into the ignoble end of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and indelible musical figures.
At least this was the draw of the trip as I felt it, the source of my own decision to recreate the Death Ride. As there is something particularly American about the tradition of the road trip, what, then, could be more American than dying in a car—not in a car accident, mind you, but in quietly passing away under the hum of an engine, the percussion of the road? Of course, I wasn’t the first. In 2002, marking the fiftieth anniversary, a reporter from The Tennessean retraced the route, and a Google search uncovers at least two Hank fans who’ve posted photos and observations regarding their own versions of the journey. Even Alabama’s Bureau of Tourism and Travel has tried to get in on the action by creating a campaign designed to promote the “Hank Williams Trail.” Among other not directly death-related landmarks, the campaign points tourists towards the old highway where Carr and Hank began their ride and to the hotel where Hank spent his last full night. Additionally, a leg of I-65 running parallel to the old highway (and which most certainly didn’t exist in Hank’s time) has officially been dubbed the “Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway.” In a part of the country perpetually desperate for tourism, Alabama certainly isn’t above plugging, even if only indirectly, a Death Ride vacation. One can only assume that West Virginia will soon come up with a similar plan.
Rather than simply beginning the drive, for the first day, I settled on a series of quick visits: stopping at Georgiana’s Boyhood Home before reaching Montgomery, then, once there, grabbing a bite to eat at Chris’ Hot Dogs (a tiny diner that was reportedly one of Hank’s favorites and appears amazingly unchanged by time), browsing through the Hank Williams Museum, and finally ending the day at Hank’s gravesite located in Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery.
The Author at Oakwood
These sites are all fairly obvious choices, easily reached and tourist-friendly, but my next stop required a small deviation from the route even before I’d really begun. Alabama’s newest Hank attraction is about an hour’s drive from Montgomery and located in what appears to be (at least by my reckoning) the middle of nowhere. Outside of Kowaliga, Alabama, an unassuming lake-side cabin has been carefully restored to its 1952 state and not very creatively named the “Hank Williams Cabin.” Requiring, for some reason, its guests to possess homeowner’s insurance and a rather steep deposit on top of the rental fee, the cabin is neither convenient nor particularly economical. Nevertheless, after several phone and email conversations (in which I had to beg for an exception to the insurance rule), I’d rented it for the night.
The cabin resides on a compound owned by a nonprofit group, Children’s Harbor, which primarily functions as a camp for disabled kids. When I arrived, the campground was deserted, with only a small staff in its main offices, and once night hit, no one was there at all. The cabin is notable, as a laminated article sitting on its kitchen counter made clear, for being the site on which Hank composed the song “Kaw-Liga,” a likable novelty track involving a broken hearted “wooden Indian.” Written by the radio DJ who’d invited Hank to the cabin and spent much of the visit there with him, the article characterizes the time there as idyllic—all hunting, fishing, and deep talks while watching the sunset over the water. Hank, it seems, was brought to a serene, philosophical state by his stay, and it was this state that allowed him to compose “Kaw-Liga” and put the finishing touches on another famous song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Hank Williams Cabin
This attractive story helps justify the cabin’s existence as a historical landmark and explains why the restoration is based upon photographs from the year of Hank’s visit. Rustic wood floors and paneling, the two bedroom’s small single beds and thin mattresses, stiff period furniture—1952 seems not to have been exactly comfortable, but it certainly had its charms. On the wall, a black and white photograph shows the living room’s original appearance, complete with painted fire place cover and a mantle topped with decorative plates, two small kerosene lamps, a curved water jug, and a tiny ukulele. The whole scene has been faithfully recreated in the current room. Of course, one can assume that the original ukulele wasn’t bolted down.
What the cabin appears to offer most is a place for pondering. On the back porch, a surprisingly comfortable metal glider looks out over Lake Martin, the country’s largest artificial lake, and, like Hank, you can watch the sunset and become inspired by the natural (or semi-natural, I suppose, if you consider the lake’s artificial status) beauty all around. This is not to say that there are not some discordant elements. Most striking during my visit was the campground’s distinct lack of wildlife. If I really concentrated, I could hear an occasional bird (only logical considering that the area is surrounded by trees), and black ants bit eagerly at my bare feet. But there were no signs of anything else—no squirrels or raccoons and no amount of peering could locate fish in the lake. This absence gave the place a marked degree of unnatural stillness that didn’t seem to match precisely with the cabin’s carefully crafted story.
Looking Out Over an Empty Lake
Of course, history doesn’t really match either. Missing from the laminated article and the Hank Williams Trail publicity materials is the presence during Hank’s historic visit of his newly pregnant girlfriend, Bobbie Jett, or the fact that on the singer’s first night there, he didn’t sleep in the cabin at all. Hank spent that first night in nearby Alexander City, sleeping off a drunken binge in a jail cell. This Hank Williams doesn’t appear in the cabin’s or, for that matter, in Alabama’s designated history. Nor does the fact that he’d been fired from the Grand Ole Opry only six days before his visit. This, after all, was August of 1952, and the singer would be dead little more than four months later.
Not surprisingly, this was the history that was on my mind after I checked out of the cabin the next morning and returned to the Death Ride route and to old Highway 31. According to Colin Escott, author of the Hank Williams: The Biography, Hank had already been drinking before Charles Carr and he left Montgomery, and to make the trip more comfortable, he’d found a doctor to give him a shot of morphine. Add to that the chloral hydrate (the main ingredient of what used to be called a “Mickey”) the singer had already been taking as an alcoholism treatment, and then consider a physical condition that included a bad heart and painful spinal condition, spina bifida, made worse by a botched operation, and you might have an idea of the state of the man laid across the blue Cadillac’s backseat. As for the highway, only glimpses remain of what Carr might have seen through the vehicle’s windshield on those last two days of 1952.
On the Death Ride with Postcard of the Cadillac
On 31, signs of life are primarily reserved for new construction. One moment the woods on each side of the highway are dotted with a few rundown houses, the occasional mobile home, an ancient and likely abandoned barn, and then the next moment a brand new Baptist Church appears, then the ornate entrance to a planned community of homes: The Enclave: Classic American Homes starting at $119,000. These planned communities, selling comfortingly generic architecture and the concept of old-fashioned, “classic” neighborhoods, quickly become ubiquitous on the drive, no matter how rural the surroundings. Still some miles outside of Birmingham, the landscape gives way to the chain stores—Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Kohls, PetSmart—rapidly rising to join the already established pioneer, Wal-Mart. As often is the case with this type of sprawl, it is impossible to locate precisely where it is all sprawling from, and soon enough everything lapses back into trees.
Birmingham, an old, established Southern city, seems to offer much clearer rules, particularly once Highway 31 leads past the outskirts’ suburban sprawl and into the decidedly urban downtown, which offers rehabbed brick buildings pleasantly containing traits of both the old and the new. In the late afternoon, as I drove in, only a few men in nearly identical navy suits strolled the sidewalk, surrounded by office buildings, art galleries, coffee shops, and upscale design and furniture stores. Of course, downtown Birmingham also contains plenty of empty storefronts and for sale or lease signs, typical indications of prosperity mixed with other less positive economic signs. This contradiction is further echoed in the Redmont Hotel, a beautiful high-rise from the twenties which has been restored with a careful eye for that era.
Notably, the Redmont hadn’t been Hank’s first choice for a Birmingham hotel. After Charles Carr had committed an illegal U-turn in front of the city’s most prestigious hotel, the Tutwiler, a police officer had ordered them to move along; the Redmont was where they’d ended up. That being said, the hotel certainly isn’t hesitant to exploit its status as the last place the singer spent a full night. A page of its website is devoted to “The Hank Williams Story,” and after I’d mentioned the singer while making my reservation, the hotel upgraded my room. I opened the door to discover a framed Hank Williams Trail poster and another frame containing a George Jones Salutes Hank Williams LP and the lyrics sheet for “Hey Good Looking.” Without even knowing it, I’d been booked into the suite, Room 301, designated as Hank’s.
An Easily Removable Hank Shrine
According to the hotel staff, the singer and Carr did in fact get a room on the third floor, and 301, as the Guest Services Manager informed me, is in “the general area that he stayed in.” Not much else is known about the stay other than that three women had apparently invited themselves up to the room and that, after the women had left, Carr ordered room service for the two of them. So, that’s what I did: ordered a steak and spent the evening in the room. Alabama was in the middle of a heat wave—when I turned on the television, the local news was filled with temperature reports and warnings to say inside—and perhaps that was responsible for the general absence of people on the streets and, in fact, in the hotel. Not unlike the Hank Williams Cabin and its lack of wildlife, the Redmont appeared quite empty and still. I literally didn’t see another guest during my stay. This, I suppose, offered an ideal atmosphere for communing with ghosts, but I was content simply with an undisturbed night of sleep.
After leaving Birmingham, Hank and Carr had stopped in a little town named Fort Payne, where the singer had reportedly gotten a shave and bought a pint of bonded whiskey. On the old highway, the town’s welcome sign boasts, “Fort Payne: Official Sock Capital of the World,” and not much further down the road, another notable sight comes into view, a large white building which holds (the band) Alabama’s Fan Club and Museum. Despite careful looking, I drove the entire length of Fort Payne without spotting a single liquor store to pick up a pint in. After another three or so hours, during which the highway wound through Chattanooga (a city offering numerous liquor stores) and gave me my first view of the Appalachian Mountains, I reached the first site where theories have suggested Hank might have passed away, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Fort Payne: Sock Capitol of the World AND Home to the Alabama Fan Club
As with Birmingham, Knoxville’s downtown shows signs of gentrification, but, in this case, the process appears much further along. With all the construction, filled storefronts, and old brick buildings being transformed into high-dollar condos, the downtown looks to be heading towards full tilt rejuvenation. I pulled into a parking garage and walked over to my freshly renovated boutique hotel, the Hotel St Oliver, located in a nineteenth century building and filled with reproduction French antiques. I was only a few blocks away from where Hank and Carr had stopped for a few hours, and, after seeing next to no one for much of the last two days, this part of Knoxville, the Market Square District, seemed surprisingly bustling with activity.
The pair hadn’t originally meant to stop in Knoxville at all. Hank had realized that they were making poor time and decided to catch an airplane from Knoxville’s airport. They’d bought tickets, boarded, and were in the air when the aircraft was ordered to return to Knoxville due to bad weather (some reports blame snow and others fog). Several more hours were lost, and evening had fallen by the time they checked into the Andrew Johnson hotel for a brief rest. The building which had once held the hotel still exists, but now the Andrew Johnson contains the central offices for the local school system. A red-brick high-rise, the building likely doesn’t look much different than it had to Hank and Carr, except for a rather unfortunate addition on its left side, an odd outgrowth of metal and green glass. By this point in the trip, Hank’s health had visibly worsened. He’d been having hiccups severe enough to cause small seizures, and while at the hotel, they’d located a local doctor who came up to their room, gave the singer two more shots of morphine, and reportedly issued the puzzling diagnosis that the singer was fit for travel.
The Andrew Johnson: The First Possible Death Spot
Unlike Hank and Carr, I decided to linger in Knoxville after visiting the Andrew Johnson and to find a little respite from all the stillness and decay of the previous two days. In a decided departure from Death Ride itinerary, I ate dinner at an upscale, and very busy, pizza place specializing in organic and local ingredients, then browsed through the fashionable home furnishing and clothing stores in Market Square. A manager at a store specializing in handmade clothing, Indigo, cheerfully answered my questions about all the development. She related downtown Knoxville’s current state back to the 1982 World’s Fair, when the downtown had experienced a hurried influx of money and development which then quickly dried up. The downtown hadn’t begun to rebound until this decade. The man primarily responsible for the resurgence, she informed me, had recently been convicted as a the leader of a multi-million dollar marijuana ring. Drug money, in other words, had fueled the now booming development of Knoxville’s downtown, and several of the businesses I’d visited had, in fact, been operated by the now convicted drug dealer. His buildings had recently been seized by the federal government and were due to be sold to other developers.
Once back at the hotel, I turned on the television and was immediately confronted by a close-up of Pricilla Presley’s face. Elvis’ ex-wife had been so heavily reconstructed that her smooth, rounded features looked remarkably alien; she was a guest on Larry King, broadcasting live from Graceland in Memphis. The camera cut away to outside the mansion, where hundreds of people held up candles in the dark; this night was the eve of the thirty-year anniversary of Elvis’ death. The next day my trip would conclude on the spot where Hank’s body had finally been found, and by bizarre coincidence, I’d timed it so that the end of the Death Ride fell on a date often referred to, at least by a certain type of Presley fan, as “Death Day.” Coverage on the other news channels was similarly focused on the anniversary. After flipping through the dial and seeing Elvis’ image at least a half-dozen times, I settled back on CNN.
So, here I was, celebrating with my country the anniversary of the day Elvis died of causes remarkably similar to Hank’s: heart failure due to a mix of prescription drugs. When it was time to leave Knoxville, hotel porters had to carry Hank out to the car. As Colin Escott notes in his biography, the porters later claimed that the singer had appeared lifeless as they’d laid him in the Cadillac’s backseat, even though he’d made two small noises that sounded like coughs—noises, some believe, that could have been made by an already dead body. Carr, though, is on the record as swearing that this hadn’t been the case, that Hank had actually gotten into the backseat by himself and that later they’d even talked in the car. Either way, the pair had pulled away from Knoxville around 11:00 pm on New Year’s Eve.
I woke early the next morning, grabbed a light breakfast, and then headed out for the last leg of the trip. Outside of Knoxville, on old Highway 11, traffic was thin, and there was little to see outside of the mountains’ hazy outline. For the first time all trip, I put Hank on the stereo and then watched out carefully for the spot where Carr had been pulled over by a police officer for reckless driving. The landscape here periodically offers the familiar sight of a strip mall, Baptist church, or fireworks stand, and after a while, the highway narrows from four lanes to two. I pulled over briefly in Rutledge, Tennessee, where the police officer had insisted Carr follow him to a courthouse to be arraigned on a traffic ticket. Not sure what to look for, I snapped a picture of the county courthouse and the tiny police station across the street. While Carr had been getting arraigned and paying a twenty-five dollar fine, Hank had stayed in the Cadillac’s back seat.
Rutledge’s Police Station
The drive remained steady, with little or no traffic in both directions, as 11 led through more towns, one stacking upon the next. On this stretch of the highway, whole towns appear as nothing but huge complexes of chain stores; when the stores end so do the towns. After the highway splits and the route moves onto old Highway 19, almost immediately the road passes directly through a neighborhood, the first true neighborhood of the trip, filled with well maintained, red-brick houses. Slowing down, I passed by a small elementary schoolhouse just as children were beginning to pour out. As the neighborhood subsides, more signs of age appear, glimpses of what Carr might have seen through the Cadillac’s windows: a sign for the Moonlit Drive-Thru Theater, the Hi Lo Diner, the Robert E. Lee Hotel. At Bluefield, another town where Carr had reportedly stopped, the highway suddenly weaves through another old downtown, this one distinctly ungentrified and industrial. A railroad track rises up to the left, freight cars motionless across it, and remains in view for some time. Shortly after, the road begins to wind and curve as it leads upwards towards the mountains.
The Death Ride’s Tight Curves
Nothing I’d read had prepared me for this stretch of highway. The turns get tighter, and trees begin to crowd the road. For the first time, the route clearly displays the basic difficulty of Carr’s task. As I crawled down 19, going slow to carefully take each turn, I tried to imagine what it could have been like. Seventeen years old. The early hours of New Years Day. Low visibility and maybe snow. The creeping knowledge that, in the backseat, the most famous country singer in the world hasn’t stirred for hours. How did Carr even manage to stay on the road?
Eventually, out of all this, Oak Hill appears. A sign at a curve reads “Hank Williams Memorial Road,” and just like that, I was in the middle of a town. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sight I’d been looking for and hurriedly pulled into a bank parking lot. Other than the road sign, Oak Hill only contains one other bid for Hank Williams tourism, a weathered plaque unobtrusively positioned in front of the city library. Only the plaque, with its image of the singer and the names of the donors who’d paid for it, ensures visitors they are in the right place. Directly across the street from the library sits an empty lot, where the Pure Oil Gas Station had been knocked down in early 2007. It was at the gas station that Carr had finally admitted how dreadfully wrong it all was and checked on Hank in the backseat. A few blocks up, the small hospital, where the body had been taken, remains in operation. A rundown looking pharmacy resides in the building which once housed the mortuary where Hank ended up. None of the buildings are marked or appear notable: there is only the barest concession towards the spot as a tourist attraction rather than another sad West Virginia town and an empty lot.
Site of Pure Oil Gas Station
Perhaps Oak Hill’s current state simply represents a brief lull before West Virginia joins Alabama in trying to lure people towards its own leg of the Hank Williams Trail. There’d once been a plan in the works to turn the Pure Oil Gas Station into another museum, but this, for some reason, had fallen through. Perhaps sometime soon, a Hank Williams attraction will be put on that spot, but during my visit, the empty lot struck me as oddly appropriate, more honest than anything that appears in the Trail’s promotional materials or that I’d seen so far. The spot, at least for now, has resisted the metamorphosis that Hank himself received almost immediately upon his death. Remember “I’ll Never Get Out This World Alive”? With ease, this rather cheerful novelty song (based, in fact on a W.C. Fields catchphrase) was recast as an eerie prognostication of death.
This is just one small example of the rewriting that swiftly transformed Hank Williams from the singer whose last performance was in front of only 130 people, and whose erratic behavior not only got him fired from the Opry but also made him difficult to book for any performance. From playing small venues and struggling to simply get through a day, the singer graduated to a funeral which attracted over 20,000 mourners. How loved was Elvis in the last days of his life, and how loved is he now? At twenty-nine-years old, Hank’s sins seem to have been easily forgotten, and the emaciated corpse in the Cadillac’s backseat was replaced with something else all together: a saint, then, once it was fashionable, an outlaw. In our own historical moment, he seems to exist as both these figures simultaneously, a legend in every sense of the word.
Once Hank was no longer here, that transformation became remarkably simple. What’s more difficult, his legend suggests, is to remain in a world where you will be constantly encroached upon by the new. How can a historic downtown compete with a strip mall, a real neighborhood with a planned community? Death and absence simplify our relationship with the past, and perhaps this is why living on often requires something dramatic, as Pricilla Presley can so clearly show us. That face I’d glimpsed on television contains nearly as much renovation as the architecture I’d driven through: Knoxville’s industrial buildings repurposed as condos, a simple neighborhood home in Georgiana made into a museum, a highway into a tourist attraction. But what’s left behind these changes?
Where’s Hank Williams?
Remains of the Pure Oil Gas Station
Charles Carr is still alive, in his early seventies and only grudgingly willing to play a role in the Death Ride legend. When, on the occasion of another anniversary or publicity push, a new photo of him appears alongside a newspaper article about Hank, we can’t help but peer at the wrinkled exterior and try to get a glimpse of that seventeen-year-old. This isn’t fair, of course, but how can we even imagine a life after the Death Ride ended and history stepped away? Carr remains defined by those nightmarish three days almost fifty-five years ago, and it seems impossible that, in 1953, Carr’s life had barely begun. Already swept up, as we all are, by history and not allowed the freedom to live solely in the past, the teenager had no other choice but to go on.
In the dusk, I stood in the empty Oak Hill lot for a little while longer. Some fragments of broken blue tile lay half-buried the dirt. I gathered up a handful, along with a rusted bolt, and dropped them in the trunk of my car. After one more glance around the undistinguished city street, I got back behind the wheel, turned around, and headed home.