It seems appropriate to take up the subject of Hank on New Year’s Eve in Knoxville. At the very least, Knoxville is the place Hank Williams spent his final waking hours. It is also possible, and argued persuasively, that he, in fact, died before he left town. And it all happened on New Year’s Eve, 1952.
For a thorough accounting of that final day, read Jack Neely’s excellent summation of the day’s events. His piece, which ran in Metro Pulse in 2002, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Hank’s death, details his arrival in Knoxville that morning in his pink, chauffeur-driven Cadillac. On his way to a two night engagement in West Virginia, he boarded a flight at McGhee Tyson airport, only to have the plane return due to bad weather. He spent the rest of the day on Gay Street inside the Andrew Johnson Hotel. After a visit from a Knoxville doctor, he was carried to his car at 10:45 PM on New Year’s Night and driven north. Pronounced dead early the next morning, his body already stiff, speculation began as to where he actually died. Read the article it’s a good one.
What put me in mind of all of this recently, besides the fact that I love Hank William’s music and have since I was a very young boy, was the fact that I took the photographs you are seeing on Gay Street. When walking down Gay Street late one evening, I happened to notice the striking image of the guitarist back-lighted by the window lights in the Community Design Center. It was as if an apparition, a shadow of an actual person strummed and sang as he strolled back and forth in front of the window. The person inside the window offered a contrast: the living and the unliving, the person and the shadow, the sheltered and the unsheltered.
I’ve had the pictures for a while, never having found the right time to use them on the blog, but I couldn’t shake that ethereal image. Often finding him playing in the same place, I stopped to listen and found his voice to be quite pleasing and his playing, above average. He covers a gamut from country to folk to classic songs from the forties and fifties. He’ll occasionally croon a late fifties ballad.
I stopped by to talk to him and learned his name is Hank. He showed me his 1960’s Martin D-28 which, remarkably, is the second one I’ve seen in recent months in the hands of a busker in downtown Knoxville. The guitar has a beautiful sound, made all the more amazing by the fact that it is so often exposed to the elements. It looks a bit rough, but I wondered at the safety of having such an instrument on the street.
I told Hank about the photographs and how much I enjoyed his singing. He told me he’s from Memphis and has “business” there. At first I thought he had “a business” there, but that wasn’t what he meant. He went into great detail about his father’s estate and the legal wrangling that has tied it up. He’s been to court repeatedly and plans to return, at which time he will represent himself. He quoted lengthy passages of the Tennessee Code Annotated. I couldn’t verify if it was accurate, but it sounded plausible.
The longer he talked the more worked up he got. He planned to get what was coming to him and return to New York City where he previously lived. Obviously intelligent, but seemingly homeless or near-homeless, I suspect Hank has his demons. Hesitant to keep him from making a dollar or two, I excused myself and thanked him for taking the time to talk. A few paces down the street I could hear that smooth baritone starting up as if it had never stopped.
I’m not sure if Hank really has business in Memphis or an inheritance that’s waiting there. I found him bright and engaging and he has some talent. Hank Williams had an alter-ego of sorts called “Luke the Drifter,” through which he adopted a persona of a person drifting from town to town spinning stories and waxing philosophical. I hope that this modern-day Hank keeps warm and gets out of Knoxville alive.
So, around 10:45 tonight, particularly if you find yourself downtown, you might raise a glass for Hank in remembrance of that last ride. And if you see the other Hank on Gay Street, stop and listen. Drop a dollar in his guitar case and wish him a some happiness in the coming year. One Hank rode out of Knoxville a legend, the other will fade from memory, but both are human stories from the city we love, making music marking time on the same street, sixty-one years apart.