The year was 1952 and although he was an absolute country music star, Hank Williams‘ personal life was in shambles.
Despite his short career, Hank earned 8 number ones and 55 Top 10 singles between 1946, when he signed his first record deal, and his death on New Year’s Day, 1953. He had amassed a large and loyal fanbase but despite all of this success, a combination of bad luck and bad habits lead to his early demise.
Hank was born in 1923 with a mild, but undiagnosed, case of spina bifida occulta, a birth defect where there’s an incomplete closing of the spine and surrounding membranes around the spinal cord. This condition caused him back pain throughout his life and was one of the initial causes of his alcoholism. His pain only got worse when he fell off a rodeo bull in the early 1940’s and suffered a back injury.
His alcohol abuse continued to worsen throughout his life and he eventually began taking high doses of painkillers after suffering another back injury on a hunting trip in late 1951, right as his career was at its peak. He had apparently tried to jump over a gully but didn’t make it, which lead to a spinal fusion (which are harsh enough with today’s technology, I can’t imagine what it was like in the early 50’s) and forced him to wear a back brace.
The pressures of stardom, chronic pain, and infamous trouble with the ladies had Hank fully absorbed by substances, which lead to him being fired from the Grand Ole Opryon August 11th, 1952. Six days later, while back in his home state of Alabama, Hank made a trip to Alexander City, where he owned a lakeside cabin. But what could have been a relaxing, recuperative visit turned out to be yet another problem.
According to the Alex City Outlook, Hank was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and public drunkenness at 11:25pm on August 17th, 1952.
Police Chief Winfred Patterson said the following about the incident.
“I believe he was more or less having DTs (delirium tremens). He was running up and down the hall of the Russell Hotel yelling that someone was whupping old ladies and he was going to stop them.”
He was held for a few hours until his friend Darwin Dobbs posted his $25 bond and $10 fine. It’s been said that he went home and wrote “Kaw-Liga,” which became a post-humous number one.
But as he was leaving the station, a reporter took what became a legendary picture, showing just how emaciated his body was after years of abuse. This photo is now hanging on a wall at the Alexander City Police Department, next to a copy of the original citation issued.
OTD: 67 YEARS AGO…Hank Williams was arrested in Alexander City, Alabama for public drunkenness. The famous and much used photo of Hank Williams shirtless was taken as he was let out of jail later in the day. pic.twitter.com/zSoknPVabp
— 🎧 🤠 ⚜👊🏾 Higher than a Georgia Pine – Allegedly (@CharlieGouveia) August 17, 2019
While Hank never fully recovered, he was able to record a few more songs before passing away on January 1st, 1953, a little over 4 months after this incident.
In order to fully understand who Hank Williams was and what he gave to country music, we have to come to terms with all sides of him. From legendary singer songwriter to decrepit addict to notoriously unfaithful husband, all portions of Hank’s life must be fully accepted to have a clear picture of the legacy he left, which continues to be revered and referenced to this day.