Sharing Demons with Hank Williams
A month or so ago my husband, Charlie, and I left our home in the Shenandoah Valley and headed West on a summer driving trip. Our first stop was just a couple of hours away: a gas-station parking lot in Oak Hill, W.Va., where Hank Williams was found dead in his Cadillac convertible on New Year’s Day in 1953.
As we wound into Oak Hill, it occurred to me that every small town in West Virginia sits wedged between mountains, which makes driving through them something you choose to do, rather than something that just happens. Once you do take the trouble to visit, however, it’s my experience that small-town West Virginians are generally glad to see you. If you need something, all you have to do is ask. So Charlie and I pulled into a convenience store to buy sodas and fried pies and do just that. Could you tell us, please, at which gas station Hank Williams was found dead?
The counter clerk didn’t know, which surprised me. After all, if you Google “Oak Hill Hank Williams,” you get a lot of hits. She asked a man who’d come in to buy cigarettes, but he wasn’t sure, either. A conversation developed. Finally, a woman came in who did know. Down the street, she said. Just across from the church.
She walked outside with us to point out the right direction. “Used to be Burdette’s Pure Oil,” she said. “You can’t miss it. There’s nothing there now. Nothing at all.”
Musically speaking, I was raised on classical and educated on rock ’n’ roll. Then in my 30s, someone gave me an Emmylou Harris album, and I began listening to more country music. At the time, I was doing a lot of driving on America’s highways in a pickup with a camper, so songs about heartache, not enough money and rolling down the road seemed, somehow, more real. Bourbon, small-town fried chicken and Emmylou’s music kept me more cheerful than I had any right to be during those creative, chaotic, self-destructive years.
Back then I was still a bit of a snob, toting around a snob’s attendant limitations. Hank Williams’s music was too raw, too hayseed to have meaning. He sang completely in his head and through his nose. His songs were too simplistic, too plonka-plonka in their production. The same person could not possibly embrace Wallace Stevens and Hank Williams. It was only after I’d had a lot of the pretentiousness knocked out of me by my own addiction struggles that I came to understand all this was beside the point. Hank Williams didn’t write songs for hillbillies; he wrote songs for anybody interested in facing life with a modicum of openness and honesty.
Charlie and I drove down the street. There was indeed nothing left of Burdette’s Pure Oil except a concrete slab with a couple of grease spots, a few sprouting wires and some building scraps. I had seen pictures of Burdette’s on the Internet, and it looked to have been built in the ’30s: two gas pumps, peaked blue roof, small double-bay garage, outside restrooms, a soda machine.
That’s what it must have been like 57 years ago when a college student named Charles Carr pulled in driving Hank Williams’s Cadillac, the 29-year-old singer slumped in the back seat, dead of too much alcohol, too many drugs, not enough peace. He probably died sometime earlier, somewhere on the road; no one is quite sure where. Not that it matters.
To me, there is no romance in such a death; and not much in the life that leads to it. I get to say this because I, too, once flirted seriously with self-destruction and know that when you’re an addict, the rest of your life is a shadow no matter how many songs you write or places you go or people you please. Or how many good times you have, for that matter. There’s no bargaining with alcohol and drugs once you have to have them. You either stop drinking and using or you die.
Charlie and I stayed around for about an hour, long enough to pick up some chips of Pure Oil’s signature blue roof tile. I plan to keep mine on my desk at work, along with fortune-cookie slips that tell me “curiosity is life” and I am “almost there”; six smooth pebbles from some river somewhere; and my 24-hour 12 Step chip.
After close to two decades of sobriety, I do pray in a kind of haphazard fashion, and I am open to all things being possible, even after death. So, at Burdette’s Pure Oil, I said a quick howdy to old Hank. And a quick thanks for the songs. And then I offered him a cross-dimensional high-five. For me, as for him, life is a road trip. We’d both been on the road through Oak Hill, W.Va., yet for some reason, I got to keep going.
-- Martha Woodroof is the author of a novel, “Small Blessings.” She reports for WMRA public radio in Virginia.