It’s still one of the biggest mysteries in country music.
It’s been 70 years…
It’s inspired songs, books, movies, and museum exhibits. And we still don’t know exactly what happened on this date in 1953 when Hank Williams’ last ride ended.
Let’s start with what we do know.
By the time Hank Williams got into the back seat of his blue Cadillac on December 30, 1952 en route to shows in Charleston, WV and Canton, OH, his life was far from what you’d expect for the one of biggest stars in country music.
Hank was divorced from his first wife, Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams, Jr) and he had remarried just a few months earlier. He had been kicked off of the Grand Ole Opry and had been relegated to performing on the Louisiana Hayride, where he had begun his career. He was receiving morphine shots for his constant back pain and taking dangerous sedatives to help him sleep.
The shows in Charleston and Canton were part of a comeback tour of sorts – an attempt at a return to glory for the bright young star turned disgraced country music singer. But the trip seemed doomed from the start.
An ice storm prevented Williams from flying to the shows, so he hired a college student named Charles Carr to drive him, first to West Virginia and then to Ohio. Carr, whose father was a friend of Hank’s, surely had no idea at the time that this dream opportunity would turn into a nightmare in just a few short hours.
Carr loaded up the Cadillac, a sick and frail Hank Williams in the back seat, and the pair left Montgomery on December 30. And from there, we have more questions than answers about what happened.
Hank and Carr only made it as far as Birmingham that first night, about 100 miles away from Montgomery. And by the next afternoon (the day of the West Virginia shows), they rolled into Knoxville and Hank realized that they were still hundreds of miles away from making it to their first destination. In one final attempt to make it on time, Hank booked a flight from Knoxville to Charleston. The flight managed to take off, but had to turn back due to bad weather. Unable to make it to West Virginia, the Charleston show was officially cancelled.
While in Knoxville, the pair booked a hotel at the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Carr ordered dinner to be delivered to their room, and also requested a doctor to administer two shots of B12 and morphine for Hank. According to Carr, Hank had developed the hiccups and was near convulsions, and was unable to eat his dinner.
After just under 4 hours, Hank and Carr checked out of the hotel to head back out on the road towards Canton. Hotel porters had to carry Hank to the car, with some speculating that he had already passed away by the time he was loaded into the Cadillac.
Carr strongly denies that Hank was dead when they left Knoxville, and claims that the pair later stopped at an all-night burger joint where Hank got out of the car and walked around. But what happened after the Cadillac pulled out of Knoxville is still largely a mystery.
At one point, we know that Carr was pulled over and paid a traffic ticket after almost hitting a police officer. And the police report from the stop claims that there was a third man in the car with them at the time: a man dressed like a soldier. But this detail was never confirmed by Carr, so if there was a soldier in the car with Hank, his identity – and where he got out of the car – is still a mystery to this day.
It’s at a burger joint in Bristol where Carr claims that Hank got out of the car to stretch his legs, and it’s also believed that this is where Hank spoke his last words when he told Carr that he “just wanted to get some sleep.”
After leaving Bristol, the pair continued on their journey north. It was late in the night at this point, and Carr had been driving for nearly 24 hours without any sleep. As they got to Bluefield, West Virginia, Carr pulled into a diner in an attempt to find a relief driver. There, he met Don Surface, a cab driver who had just gotten off work and agreed to drive to Canton in exchange for $50 and a bus ticket back home.
The details of what happened next – and where it happened – are still the subject of debate in small town southern West Virginia.
The version of the story that Carr told before his death goes something like this. At one point, near Oak Hill, West Virginia, Carr reached back to cover Hank with a blanket when he realized, in the early hours of New Year’s Day, that Hank’s body was stiff. He worriedly pulled into a service station in Oak Hill, where he was directed to the nearest hospital six miles away.
However, Surface claims that Carr was asleep at the time, and that he pulled into a service station in Beckley, West Virginia after missing a turn, and it was here that Surface tried to wake Hank before realizing that something was severely wrong.
Still others claim that Carr actually pulled into a hospital in Beckley – and that the doctors specifically remembered seeing a lifeless Hank Williams in the back seat before directing his driver to another hospital in nearby Oak Hill.
All we know is that somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee and Oak Hill, West Virginia, country music lost one of its most iconic singers of all time. Hank Williams was pronounced dead at 7 AM on January 1, 1953 in Oak Hill – over 600 miles from where he began his last ride in Montgomery, Alabama.
While we may never know exactly what happened as Hank’s body lay in the back of his Cadillac, his legacy still looms large over country music today – 70 years after Hank’s last ride.