Hank Williams' last ride: Driver recalls lonesome end

At 17, Charles Carr was the only witness when a legend died, and myths were born.

Charles Carr told the AJC in 2002 he was the only witness when Hank Williams died. Carr was 17, a freshman on break from Auburn. He was driving Hank Williams, 29, who died that night. Williams was a country legend whose life had collapsed.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Dec. 30, 2002.

At the wheel was Charles Carr, a college freshman on Christmas break from Auburn. The man in the back seat was singer-songwriter Hank Williams.

"I ran in and explained my situation to the two interns who were in the hospital, " said Carr, now a 67-year-old Montgomery businessman. "They came out and looked at Hank and said, 'He's dead.'

"I asked 'em, 'Can't you do something to revive him?' One of them looked at me and said, 'No, he's just dead.' "

It was a last ride that would help define American music and pop culture for decades to come.

Long before there was Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain --- self-destructive stars who flamed out at their zenith --- there was Hiram "HankWilliams, a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges Alabama country boy who wrote simple, heart-tugging songs about loneliness and then, still young, died alone in the back seat of his car.

The last hours of his troubled life long ago passed from reality to myth. Biographers have breathlessly speculated about what really happened. Officials have issued sketchy reports that only increased the mystery. Songwriters and playwrights still rhapsodize about it. An off-Broadway play, "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" is currently running in New York. A Web site dedicated to Williams estimates that more than 700 songs have been written about the singer, whose own recording career lasted only five years.

But only Carr knows the truth about those final hours. For years, he avoided most requests for interviews. But in recent years, he has begun to talk, trying to set the record straight.

He thinks Williams died --- the official cause was heart failure --- somewhere between Bristol, Tenn., and Oak Hill on the way to a New Year's Day 1953 show in Canton, Ohio.

"I'm certainly not an authority on Hank Williams, " said Carr. "But I'm the only authority on Hank Williams' death."

Theories abound

Some biographies have speculated that Williams died at a Knoxville hotel and that porters unwittingly placed his corpse in his car for the trip north. Still others have him dying on the road with an unfinished song in his hands, bedroom slippers on his feet and a pint of vodka in his coat pocket.

All bunk, retorts Carr, who maintains Williams was very much alive and wearing white cowboy boots, a stylish blue overcoat and a white fedora when he left Knoxville at 10:45 p.m. New Year's Eve en route to a concert 500 snowy miles north.

"The story seems to get better as every year goes by, " said Carr. "But Hank's life doesn't need to have anything added to it. It was sensational enough as it was."

But by the time Carr got behind the wheel of Williams' ragtop Cadillac on Dec. 30, 1952, the troubadour's life was in a full-tilt meltdown. He was divorced from his first wife, Audrey. Though remarried, he was staying at his mother's downtown Montgomery boardinghouse, having been demoted from the Grand Ole Opry to the Louisiana Hayride, the farm team of country music. He was taking morphine shots for constant back pain after major surgery the year before (he suffered from spina bifida), ingesting a dangerous sedative, chloral hydrate, to sleep and playing the same backwater clubs he'd escaped just a few years earlier.

Williams knew Carr's father, who ran a Montgomery taxi service, and the teenager was asked to drive an obviously ailing Williams to gigs in Charleston, W.Va., and Canton, major concert dates that Williams hoped would be the start of a comeback.

"Dad was a friend of Hank's and tried to look out after him in the tough times, " Carr said. "He was there talking with dad and Hank asked me if I'd be interested in making the trip."

It was a journey that seemed doomed from the start.

By the time Carr helped Williams load his guitars and stage suits into the car trunk, the weather across much of the South was deteriorating. Rain was turning to ice and snow.

Carr recalls the 6'2" Williams was sick and frail at the time, weighing perhaps 130 pounds, but disputes reports that the singer, long a heavy drinker, was guzzling booze most of the trip.

"He had a very low tolerance for alcohol at that point, " Carr said. "We bought a six-pack of Falstaff [beer] in Montgomery before we left, and there were several cans left when he died."

A rudimentary autopsy found Williams had traces of alcohol in his blood when he died, but it found no drugs, although it's unclear if pathologists tested for them.

Carr remembers Williams being in good spirits as the trip began. They told jokes, sang songs and traded tales as they navigated the two-lane highways of the pre-interstate South.

"Hank's song 'Jambalaya' was just out on the radio and he asked me what I thought of it, " Carr recalled. "I told him I didn't care for it, that it didn't make a bit of sense to me. Hank laughed and said, 'You son of a bitch, you just understand the French like I do.'

"We were just a couple of young guys on a car trip having fun."

They spent the night at a hotel in Birmingham and got an early start on New Year's Eve as the weather continued to worsen. Carr remembers Williams buying a pint of bonded bourbon in Fort Payne, Ala. He also made one waiter very happy.

"He walked up to our server at a restaurant we ate at and said, 'Here's the biggest tip you ever got.' And he gave him $50. Money didn't mean anything to Hank."

Final hours

It was snowing by the time they reached Chattanooga, and Williams decided to try to catch a flight from Knoxville to make the Charleston show on time. The flight took off at 3:30 p.m., but was turned back due to the bad weather, so they found themselves stuck in Knoxville for the night. The Charleston show was a bust, but they still hoped to make Canton.

Carr got them a room at the 17-story Andrew Johnson Hotel and they checked in about 7 p.m. to wait out the storm.

"We talked a while and ordered dinner up in the room, " Carr said. "As I remember, Hank didn't eat much of anything. He had the hiccups real bad."

Carr called a doctor, who came and gave Williams two injections --- later determined to be morphine mixed with vitamin B12.

"He calmed down after that, but looking back, maybe the hiccups or the indigestion could have been the beginning of a coronary, " Carr said.

Williams dozed off fully clothed, but about 10:30 p.m., Carr got a call from the concert promoter telling him they had to leave right away and drive through the night to make the Canton show.

"There was some kind of penalty clause in his contract . . . so we had to be there for the New Year's Day concert or else, " Carr said.

"When we left the room, they sent a wheelchair, " Carr said. "They rolled him down to the car and Hank got in on his own. I clearly remember that."

Carr said there was little traffic as they pulled out of Knoxville.

"What traffic you did see was moving at a slow pace because the roads were so bad, " Carr said. "We were trying to push it but we didn't have much luck."

Carr got a ticket about an hour later in Blaine, Tenn., when he almost ran into a patrolman while trying to pass another car. He paid a fine and got back behind the wheel with Williams asleep in the back. It was after midnight by this time --- already New Year's Day --- and Carr had been behind the wheel since early that morning.

The teenager stopped in a small town to gas up and get a bite to eat. Carr said it could have been Bristol, Tenn., about 120 miles northeast of Knoxville, or it could have been Bluefield, a town in West Virginia. It was dark and he was bone-tired in unfamiliar territory. He specifically remembers a service station on one side of the highway and a diner and a cab stand on the other. He pulled in to gas up.

"I remember Hank got out to stretch his legs and I asked him if he wanted a sandwich or something, " Carr said. "And he said, 'No, I just want to get some sleep.'

"I don't know if that's the last thing he said. But it's the last thing I remember him telling me."

At the cab stand, Carr picked up a relief driver who helped him drive for a few hours before getting out somewhere in rural West Virginia.

Carr drove on, but became increasingly concerned about the eerie silence in the back seat. He pulled off the road to check on Williams, who was lying with his head toward the passenger seat and had his left hand across his chest.

"He had his blue overcoat on and had a blanket over him that had fallen off, " Carr said. "I reached back to put the blanket back over him and I felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm."

Carr pulled into the next service station he saw and told the owner he needed to get to a hospital fast. The man pointed the way, and Carr remembers seeing a road sign for Oak Hill, six miles away.

Revisiting the scene

On a bright December day a few weeks ago, Carr strolled through the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery. He sat for a few minutes in the driver's seat of the Cadillac he drove that night.

The overcoat that Williams was wearing is in a glass case nearby, as is one of his pearl-handled pistols and the shoeshine kit he used as a boy to help support his family.

Carr moved on after that long-ago brush with fame. He went back to Auburn University, got a degree, served in the military, got married, had kids and became a successful businessman. He now has a home in Montgomery and a weekend lake house.

He has a framed poster for the concert that he and Williams never got to, and he keeps a pair of cowhide gloves the singer gave him on that final trip.

He'll attend a New Year's Day memorial service for Williams at his much-visited grave in Montgomery's Oakwood Cemetery annex. A few surviving members of Williams' "Drifting Cowboys" band will be there as well, if they are able to make it. They are old men now, some in their 80s.

"But I'm not going to make a day of it, " Carr said. "I just want to honor Hank."

A visitor observes that Carr has survived the years about as well as the old Cadillac, which has been immaculately restored. Carr laughs at the suggestion.

"No, no, " he said. "I'm an old man. But Hank Williams never had to worry about that. He'll always be young to me."