The July 6 issue reported the death of King’s stepfather, Charles Carr. It noted that Carr was the driver of the Cadillac in which country music legend Hank Williams was riding early on New Year’s Day of 1953. Carr, a 19-year-old, was driving Williams from Montgomery, Ala. to Canton, Ohio.
Around Town further recounted that when Carr stopped for gasoline in W.Va., he found Williams slouched and unresponsive in the back seat. Williams was pronounced dead shortly afterward at age 29.
Four weeks before the MDJ story, I enjoyed lunch with King at the Madison Forum. Our conversation centered mainly on his years in Montgomery and on that city generally. Had the Forum program not gotten underway, perhaps King would have learned that I am a music history buff, and I might have learned about his stepfather’s historical drive to W.Va. and its connection to country music history.
At any rate, the AT information hurled my mind back to 1953. I was 9. There were few subcultures in America then, but one of them was that of country music lovers, most of whom were poor, rural Southerners.
Hank Williams fast became that subculture’s icon and voice. It was he who moved us further into mainstream America’s consciousness.
Country people reveled in having a voice who could groan on stage just as we groaned in our everyday soil-based lives. Besides, he was a creative artist who wrote his own songs and put them to music.
Hank also popularized our hymns. We sang them at church, but seldom heard them elsewhere. It was confirming to hear them sung by one of our own on secular radio stations from Virginia to Texas.
We all knew that Hank was troubled. For that we loved him all the more. As long as he continued to belt out “I Saw the Light,” we could forgive his rascality and pity him for trying to kill his pain with things that make pain worse. We figured Hank was no more imperfect than the rest of us, though we winced to hear of his latest shenanigan.
Neither did it matter that Hank probably never picked as much cotton as most rural Southerners, never shucked corn or never got sweet potato juice on his hands that wouldn’t wash off. We knew that the vegetables he sold on the streets of Georgiana, Ala. to help make ends meet came from a small garden, not from endless fields like those in which most of us labored. He still knew poverty, and if he could make big money by letting our groanings be heard, more power to him; after all, he was our music’s first superstar.
Six months before Hank died, the Korean War ended. Two months before his death, Eisenhower was elected president. Except for the shame of segregation that would soon be addressed, the nation was beginning to experience an era of good feeling. Ike’s very countenance told us so. Post-World War II prosperity had begun to spread its gleam across the land. That prosperity didn’t reach every household that listened to Hank, but up and down our country roads we could still see that herds were getting bigger, pickups were getting shinier and yards were getting prettier. It was the tranquil ’50s.
In the land of Hank, we sweltered in the summer and cursed the outdoor toilet in winter. The barest of meals was preceded by a sincere prayer of thanks. On unbearable summer nights, often sleeping three abed, we stirred the air with a folded newspaper or a funeral home fan brought home from church by mistake.
The summer I turned 11, my love for Hank was challenged. A visiting evangelist tore into Hank and into the rest of us for idolizing him. I was puzzled. Hank’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” didn’t promote cheating; it described its sorrowful results. Did the evangelist not know about Hank’s “A Tramp on the Street,” which described the sufferings of Jesus and the poor man Lazarus of the Bible?
In Hank’s era we played with toy guns — sticks — and were none the worse for it. We didn’t fixate on possible injury or misfortune. Accidents and hard times were part of life. Hank’s life taught us that.
A few days after his death, my family was listening to Hank on the radio. My 6-year-old brother remarked, “They must notta buried him yet.”
Actually we still haven’t, and I’m glad. I’m also glad to know the brave, freedom-loving stepson of the man who took Hank on his last ride.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.