Hank Williams and My Father
As we drove through El Paso, Texas, Dad began singing “Rose’s Cantina,” his all time favorite song. His baritone was beautiful. Bob had a deep voice, even at two. He echoed “Mexican girl!”
“You fall in love everywhere we go.” Mom hated the song. Before they met, Dad had dated a Mexican girl who’d told him she was eighteen. When he drove her home one night, her father greeted him with a shotgun. “She is fifteen, loco!” I inherited my father’s diaries when he died in 2009. The entire conflagration is there to read in his neat, precise handwriting. “After a night in the desert with Maria, I barely escaped with my life. What the hell? Why didn’t she admit she was that young? I ought to be in prison.”
My father was an emotionally young twenty-two then, never dated as a teenager or while at college. He served in the Navy during WWII and after that, a year of wild living in ‘San Fran’ where he never slept, going from one jazz club to another, playing drums at the invitation of band members like Gene Krupa.
My mother loved country-western music and Dad was a jazz fiend. So there was always a war over what radio station would be played in our 1950 DeSoto. “Oh, hell no! Not that crap,” Bill shouted, turning the knob from George Jones singing “What am I Worth,” finally landing on Chet Baker’s “Darn that Dream.” It was a constant source of entertainment for me, seeing whether Bill or Benji would win the battle of the bands.
The only country singer both my parents loved was Hank Williams. Dad could sing just like him, including the warbling yodels.
As we headed north on that long drive, Dad asked me (Bob was pretending to read a Superman comic book), “Dixie, have I ever told you the story about me and Hank Williams? This guy.” The radio was now crooning “I’m Walkin’ th’ Floor Over You.”
“No, Daddy,” I leaned forward (no seatbelts in the 1950s) so I could hear my father’s voice over highway sounds. All windows were rolled down, letting fast air rush in to cool us in those non-air conditioned days.
“Well, you were just a baby, born in Indianapolis a few months prior. But I had plot points to check down near Austin and then on to Baton Rouge. What does that mean in French?”
“Good for you. So your mother was tired and didn’t want to paint the town rouge with me.”
“You left me in that crappy hotel with Dixie screaming her lungs out.”
“I told you, she has to sleep in a dark place with no noise. She’s just like me.”
“You try finding somewhere with no noise along a major highway.”
“Anyway, you did cry a lot. I think you were trying to tell us something. Babies come into this world knowing everything but the G–D– schools ruin that.
Anyhow, I headed out on my own. In search of music.”
“And dancing and chasing women.”
“Go to hell. I never touched another woman after I met you.”
“You couldn’t go anywhere without women falling all over themselves over you.”
My father was a danged good-looking guy.
“Back to Austin. So I pulled into the parking lot of this place, The Skyline. Heard honky-tonk music. Went in and got a beer.”
“Was it jazz, Daddy?” I asked.
My father laughed, “the furthest thing from it. There stood Hank Williams with his band, playing all those songs we have on 45s. I could not believe it. He was even better live. Talk about women falling all over somebody! I got to dancing–by myself. I can’t help it if a slew of girls did come and dance right beside me. A few times Hank’s and my eyes met and he gave me this grin like he was saying, ‘good for you, buddy.’”
Dad broke into song,
“Thibodaux, Fontaineaux, the place is buzzin’
Kinfolk come to see Yvonne by the dozen.
Dressed in style they go hog wild,
me oh my oh Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the Bayou!”
“So as things were getting pretty wild, Hank said “Time for us to take a break.” He headed straight for the bar and put his white boots right up next to my work boots. Gave me a big smile.
I said, “What’ll you have? I’m buying.”
He was a soft-spoken gentleman. Said, “Don’t mind if I do,” in his Alabama accent. “How about same as you’re drinkin’?”
Any number of ladies came up to us but we were having a nice time just to ourselves. Maybe a ten minute break, then up he went to sing some more. Damn, that guy could yodel.”
I have never been able to sing but I let loose with “Catfish Pie on th’ Bayou!”
My father laughed encouragingly.
“Then what, Daddy?”
“Well, Hank asked me for a ride back to where he and his band were staying. They’d had a falling out about his drinking. He was half drunk up on stage but that didn’t affect his singing one bit.”
“Was he famous?”
“Hell, yes he was. So I drove him home, to his motel. We laughed it up along the way. He told me, ‘my Billie Jean better not find out about the gol’ danged women in that Starlight.’
I said, “My wife has ESP. She always knows when I’ve been around other women.” Then he told me, “It ain’t ESP, Bill–it’s your cheatin’ heart.”
And then we sang that one. When he got out of my car, he tipped his hat and said, “See you down th’ road, Bill.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“No, he died in the back seat of his touring car. Heart attack and not yet thirty. A damned loss. Had bad back pain from a fall or something like that, took to drinking too much and used pain killers. But you don’t judge a person by their last days. You look at what they’ve accomplished in their lives. He lived more in those few years than a person who lasted ‘til their hundredth birthday.”
I never knew until reading up on Hank that he was born with spinal bifida, causing life-long, terrible pain. He drank & used drugs to dull the agony.