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"I Won't Be Home No More"

The Death of Hank Williams

By Maura Kistler


Legendary country music star Hank Williams was found dead in Oak Hill, Fayette County, on January 1, 1953. This publicity photograph of Williams is courtesy of Charleston Newspapers, date unknown.

Hank Williams

New Year's Day 1953 dawned cold and gray in the town of Oak Hill, Fayette County. While many residents rolled over to enjoy a few extra hours of sleep on this bleak holiday morning, a drama was unfolding downtown, which would become an enduring part of Oak Hill lore, complete with tall tales, conflicting accounts, and larger-than-life characters. As the rest of the world would soon learn, country music singer and composer Hank Williams had quietly rolled into town early that day in the backseat of his brand-new, baby-blue Cadillac convertible. At the age of 29, he was dead.

Questions about the incident, such as what time he had died, how he had died, what became of his hat, and exactly what Oak Hill should do now with the dubious distinction of being the "last stop of Hank's final journey," still elicit lively debate, 50 years later.

Hiram "Hank" Williams was born near Georgiana, Alabama, on September 17, 1923. Referred to by some as the "Hillbilly Shakespeare," he had a brief but phenomenally successful career, recording 130 songs, including 11 number-one hits. These included "Lovesick Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me?" "Hey, Good-Lookin'," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and many others. Williams had been the most popular act on the "Grand Ole Opry" for three years, until he was fired in August 1952 for being unreliable - one side effect of his ongoing problem with alcohol. While his musical style may not have been to everyone's taste, his emotional, deeply personal songs delivered in a trademark hillbilly twang have proven to be timeless.

Hank Williams and his music are particularly revered in West Virginia. While he made few live appearance in the state during his four-year performing career, his popular recordings and radio broadcasts secured him a strong West Virginia audience, both during his lifetime and in the years following his death.

In Oak Hill, feelings about Hank Williams are mixed. Some residents have been deeply moved by what occurred here on January 1, 1953, to the point of erecting a monument and lobbying for the construction of a local museum in Williams' honor. Others seem anxious to forget their community's brush with the troubled young musician, while still others remain ambivalent or uninformed about this captivating chapter of Oak Hill history.

Undertaker Joe Tyree, retired police officer Howard Janney, and automobile dealer Ike Brown were all in Oak Hill on that fateful morning, and each played an active role in the events that took place here. Howard Janney was one of responding police officers, Joe Tyree was the funeral director who took care of the body, and Ike Brown took part in the coroner's inquest. Young men just doing their jobs, they could never have imagined that their phones would still be ringing 50 years later, as fans, journalists, and the just-plain-curious continue to call. Fortunately, these are gracious men who have clear memories and share a down-to-earth perspective about the story and their places in it. They recount the events of that day simply, without sensationalism, speculation, or drama of any kind.

You can read the rest of this article in the Winter 2002 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.