Hank and Irene: The CVHS learns about two country legends

Published 10:06 am Tuesday, January 30, 2024

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Anyone who loves country music knows all about Hank Williams and the huge legacy he left in that field. They also know about his son, Hank Jr., and the notoriety he has attained. Daughter Jett Williams is also a well-known entertainer. The Williams family has made quite a mark in country music, but not that many people are knowledgeable about how important Hank’s mother Lillie and sister Irene were in promoting a positive image of Hank following his untimely death at age 29 on January 1, 1953.

At Sunday afternoon’s quarterly meeting of the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society (CVHS), Dr. Steve Goodson talked about Irene’s long-time efforts in keeping his brother’s memory alive. “Irene played an important and underappreciated role in protecting and promoting Hank’s reputation and legacy in the decades following his death in 1953,” he said.

Jett Williams was born Antha Belle Jett five days after Hank Willams died. She was later adopted by Hank’s mother, Lillie Williams Stone, and was renamed Catherine Yvonne Stone. She didn’t learn about her biological parents until the 1980s. An Alabama court ruled her to be Hank Williams’ daughter in 1985. Two years later, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that she was entitled to a half share in the Williams estate.

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She has had modest success as a singer and songwriter and has received two Grammy awards. Her autobiography, “Ain’t Nothing as Sweet as My Baby” was published in 1990. In 2000, the State of Tennessee had a Jett Williams Appreciation Day.

Hank Jr., nicknamed Bocephus, is three years old than his half-sister, and is much better known in the field of music. His style is a mixture of rock, blues and country. He’s best known for his songs, “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Family Tradition,” “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and one of Dad’s old songs, “There’s a Tear in My Beer.”

Dr. Goodson talked about how Irene and Hank grew up in poverty in Butler County, Alabama in the 1920s. Their father, Elonzo “Lon” Williams, had been wounded while serving in World War I and later worked as a railroad engineer. The family was living in Greenville, Alabama in the mid-1930s and moved to Montgomery in 1937. It was there that 14-year-old Hank first gained attention for his musical talent and an uncanny ability to connect with people with the words from his songs. “He would sing live on local radio station WSFA and at schools and in local dance halls,” Goodson said.

In 1938 he played guitar and sang lead for a band known as the Driftin’ Cowboys. Hank’s mom Lillie served as their manager.

Hank married Audrey Sheppard in 1944, and his new wife would compete with Lillie for control of his career. He signed a contract with MGM Records in 1947 and had his first hit single, “Move It On Over.” He joined the popular radio program Louisiana Hayride the next year and had his first No. 1 hit, “Lovesick Blues,” on Billboard’s Country and Western chart. That propelled him to stardom on The Grand Ole Opry. Though unable to read music to any degree, he went on to write such iconic songs as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

His success was skyrocketing, but he couldn’t deal with it. He was fired from the Grand Ole Opry for unreliability and alcoholism. Audrey divorced him in 1952 and had a brief marriage to Billie Jean Horton.

Born with spina bifida, Williams suffered from back pain for years. The condition worsened with his on-stage performances. It is widely believed that it played a part in his drinking and excessive prescription drug use. Williams’ brief but meteoric career had a great influence on many who followed him. Entertainers from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have all spoken of Hank Williams’ influence.

Goodson maintains that older sister Irene had much to do with her brother’s rise to fame and after his death promoting his legacy. She was always sensitive about her and the family being looked down on as poor, ignorant and good-for-nothing white trash. She would readily admit to having grown up poor, but they were not ignorant and good for nothing. Making the point they were decent people, she would always point to Hank’s innate ability to touch people’s hearts with the words of his songs. In addition to the well-known country songs, Williams wrote many gospel songs including “I Saw the Light.”

Irene was a key force in organizing the Driftin’ Cowboys. She served as their ticket agent and would sometimes be a backup singer. After Hank’s death in 1953, she would always emphasize her brother’s good points and never the bad.

Goodson said that much about her comes through in the years she wrote a column for the magazine Country Song Round-Up. She did that from 1955 to 1961. After her mother’s death in 1955, Irene managed Hank’s estate and turned Jett over to the welfare system. She maintained a vast collection of Hank Williams memorabilia and for a brief period in the 1980s opened a museum in his memory in Nashville. Before her death in 1995, she sold much of that collection to singer Marty Stuart who presented it in a stage exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Jett was a reminder to Irene that Hank was not the ideal family man,” Goodson said. “In her magazine articles, she highlighted Hank’s positive traits. She disputed many of the rumors being spread about her brother and the way he had lived. During his life, most of his fans knew little about his private life.”

Hank did give hints of that in some of his songs.

Goodson said that in September 1955 a scandal magazine published an article claiming that Hank Williams was not only given to drunken binges but also took excessive amounts of morphine, possibly to ease his back pain. The article also implied that Williams would spend time with young girls who followed him to his hotel room when he was on tours.

Irene vigorously fought such rumors but in ways, it was a losing battle. “People wanted to read such stories because they were eager to learn anything they could about Hank Williams, true or not,” Goodson said.

Irene married in 1946 and was living with her husband in the Seattle, Washington area when she received word of Hank’s death on New Year’s Day in 1953. She rushed home to the funeral to be with the family. A crowd of more than 3,000 people crowded into an auditorium to see the service and more than 25,000 people were outside. It was thought to have been the largest gathering ever in Montgomery, surpassing the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy in 1861. His gravesite in Oakwood cemetery is still a frequently visited site.

Irene divorced her first husband and moved to Dallas, Texas in the early 1960s. She became a respected businesswoman and was active in the local Chamber of Commerce. In 1968 she became involved in a romantic relationship with a man named Babe Garcia and ran afoul of the law. She was arrested while entering the U.S. from Mexico in Garcia’s car. An estimated 7.2 pounds of pure cocaine was found in the vehicle. It had an estimated street value of more than $2 million. Irene denied knowing anything about illegal drugs being in the car. “If could happen to anyone who drove a borrowed car from Mexico,” she said in her own defense.

Irene would be convicted of drug smuggling and spent time in a federal prison in West Virginia that was located not far from where her brother was found dead in the backseat of his prized baby blue Cadillac. She told friends that she had cried a river of tears over the shame she had brought to her brother’s name. She was released from prison in 1974 and would later become the office manager for a chemical company. In her latter years, she would often say that the truth about Hank’s life had been soiled by many untrue rumors and innuendo. She had faith that the real truth would come out one day, bolstering that with a claim she had written a 30,000-word manuscript about her personal knowledge about her famous brother.

If there was such a manuscript, Goodson said, no one knows what happened to it.

Her memorabilia of her brother’s life was a treasure trove of items including costumes from his performances, photo albums, and many handwritten letters and the words to some of his best-known songs when he first wrote them down.

She started selling these items off after she had fallen on hard times. She was living in the Nashville area and had become friends with Marty Stuart. “She would spend hours with him showing him items few people had ever seen,” Goodson said.

In her latter years, she received a comfortable place to stay by selling those items. She died in 1998 after spending the final four decades of her life protecting her brother’s reputation. “She loved him and was honored to be his sister,” Goodson said. “She advanced a more positive image of him. She once told an interviewer that in a way his death had not been tragic because he had done what he was put on this earth to do.”

Goodson was born in Montgomery and has a degree in history from AUM. He earned his Ph.D. from Emory University in Atlanta. He recently retired as a professor and department head from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. He is the author of “Highbrows, Hillbillies and Hellfire: Public Entertainment in Atlanta, 1880-1930,” a critically acclaimed work that won the Georgia Historical Society’s Bell Award as the best book on Georgia history in 2002. He is also co-editor of “The Hank Williams Reader,” which was published by the Oxford University Press in 2014.