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The Tragic Life and Death of Hank Williams

I was never much of a fan of Country Western Music having grown up on good old Rock and Roll. That all changed when in 1971 I went to a movie theater to see “The Last Picture Show”. Those who have seen the movie may remember that the sound track was all music by the late great Hank Williams. Not only was his music perfect for the back drop to this story about the coming of age in a small Texas town in the 50’s, the music really intrigued me for some strange reason.

I became a real fan of his music and developed a keen interest in his life and in the events surrounding his death at the young age of 29. My research of his life through books and documentaries lead me to my own theory of why his life and early death were so tragic. Hank’s story is a familiar one played out by generations of people who are the victims of misinformation, ignorance, prejudice, and our societies worship of the monopolized medical powers that be.

You see, Hank Williams suffered greatly all his life from severe and persistent back pain. In all the books written about him, there are several mentions of visits to medical doctors for pain medications. What do you think are the chances that he ever went to a chiropractor! I would say slim to none. Let’s analyze this: if even in our modern world, only 5% of the people are willing to try chiropractic, how much less, people in the decades between the 1920s to early 1950s. This was during the time when well-meaning altruistic chiropractors were routinely being jailed for “practicing medicine without a license.” I think we can safely assume that ole Hank never got to experience the treatment that would have most likely saved him from a lifetime of misery. Numerous studies over the years have shown chiropractic care to have far superior outcomes for back pain compared to other treatments. Yet people are still very unaware of the efficacy and safety record of chiropractic and chose to remain in the dark, even more so in Hank’s days.

Hank Williams:

Not a picture of Health

As anyone who has suffered from this kind of unrelenting pain knows, Hank’s dreadful back pain colored his whole world. Not knowing what else to do, he sought to numb his pain with pain killer drugs and countless bottles of whiskey. He had to endure miles and miles of pothole pitted asphalt traveling from concert to concert while sitting in the back seat of one of his many Cadillacs along the “Lost Highway.”

So many of the songs he wrote and recorded were a reflection of the terrible misery that was his constant companion. Sure, he had some happy songs, but there was a huge stack of lesser know songs that he wrote that if listened to or read, would make the hardest of men break down and cry.

Hank was in so much pain and so desperate that in December 1951, (the same month I was born) he relented to having back surgery. Considering today’s advanced surgical procedures and yet high incidents of failed back surgeries, think of the crude surgery that must have been performed on poor old Hank’s back!

Hank could barely stand up due to the pain, drugs, and alcohol at his first performance several weeks after his back surgery. He had a hard time remember words to songs and his performance was so bad that he was booed and several people walked out of the theatre. The combination of severe back pain, pain pills, and whiskey created an impossible relationship with his wife Audrey and she filed for divorce.

This broken, dejected, and wasted “old” man of 29 deteriorated over the next year, the last year of his life. He cried out for help and his cries were “answered” by his medical doctor, Toby Marshall, and ex-con. Doctor Marshall prescribed a narcotic sedative, Chloral Hydrate (now known to be potentially lethal).

Hank died in the back seat of his Cadillac somewhere on route to his next concert in Canton Ohio on New Years day, 1953. He had a premonition and, I believe, a longing to be in his heavenly home and away from his pain. A few days before he died, his pain was so bad he couldn’t even sleep in bed so he went to the chapel in St. Jude’s Hospital and said, “Ole Hank needs to straighten up some things with the Man.” Somehow he know he wouldn’t be around long. His new wife of two months, Billie Jean, asked him, “Hank, what in the world is the matter with you?” Hank replied, “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.” Hank finally found relief on that New Years Day.

Could it possibly be that ignorance, prejudice, ego, greed, and arrogance are at the root cause of many illnesses and early death? Sadly, the story of Hank Williams, although famous, is not all that unique in the world that we live in.

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