Speculation and myth swirl around accounts of 29-year-old country music legend Hank Williams's death in the back seat of a Cadillac on January 1, 1953. For years, Charles Carr, the only person who knew for sure what had happened that snowy day in the hinterlands of West Virginia, never talked about it.
A mere 17 at the time, Charles Carr was home on vacation from Auburn University on December 30, 1952, when his father, the owner of a limousine service and an acquaintance of Hank's, asked Charles if he would drive the country singer from his home in Montgomery, Alabama to a New Year's Eve gig in Charleston, West Virginia and then to a New Year's Day concert in Canton, Ohio. Charles agreed, but, after a late start and with a freezing rainstorm moving in, decided to stop for the night in Birmingham, Alabama.
The next day (December 31, 1952), having already canceled the first show in Charleston due to the weather, the two men daringly took off on a flight headed for Canton from Knoxville, although the pilot soon turned the plane around rather than risk disaster. According to Charles, Hank had a clause in his contract stating that he would be penalized unless he played the concert in Canton, so the pair was forced to drive on through the wintry darkness. Carr explains, "There was a penalty clause in Hank's contract if he missed a show. And he was just coming back now, after having been away from the business for a while and he didn't want to miss any shows himself..."
Before they piled back into the Cadillac, however, Charles summoned a doctor to help the ailing Hank. And here's where things get murky. In a Knoxville hotel, a mysterious physician (one of the models for Doc Ebersole in I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive) gave Hank injections of vitamin B-12 mixed with morphine for his crushing back pain and a severe fit of the hiccups.
Hank suffered from spina bifida, or as he puts it in the novel when castigating Doc, "a bad case of the spinal-whatever-it-was you called that bump on my back." This birth defect results when vertebrae fail to close properly around the spine, and its cause is linked to low levels of folic acid during pregnancy. Unless the condition is treated with surgery, it tends to grow progressively worse. According to biographer Colin Escott, the B-12 vitamin shots administered by the doctor, and the morphine they contained, may have combined with the alcohol and the sedative chloral hydrate that were already in Williams's system. Taken together, these three drugs could produce a lethal effect, and may have contributed to the heart attack that a coroner ruled as the official cause of Hank's death.
In a 2002 interview, Charles stated that after Hank received the injections, the two of them hit the road, sans doctor. (For dramatic purposes, however, Earle has Doc accompany the driver and singer down that fateful path to Hank's Great Gig in the Sky. He also plays with historical fact by portraying Doc as the quack who introduced Hank to morphine and sedatives after a performance at the "Louisiana Hayride," a radio show akin to the Grand Ole Opry, thus conflating two different factual doctors into a single, fictional one for a greater narrative punch.)
In real life, Charles Carr was alone in the car with Hank when he died at some point on New Year's Day. Exhausted from driving in foul weather and nervous that Hank hadn't uttered a word for hours, Charles finally pulled over in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where he discovered that his famous passenger had slipped away. Carr recalls, "I went to the emergency room and there were two interns standing back there. And I asked them to come and check Hank. And they went out and checked and said, well, 'He's dead.'"
A film called The Last Ride (2011), recreates these notorious three days, and if the trailer is any indication, this adaptation will prove an entertaining yet inaccurate depiction of what was most certainly a desolate journey that doesn't easily lend itself to cinematic spectacle.
Click on the video below to hear Hank Williams sing his song, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," written in collaboration with Fred Rose, released in 1952.
This article was originally published in June 2011, and has been updated for the
May 2012 paperback release.
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