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Honky-Tonk Heaven

Hank Williams
King of Country Woe: In the midst of chaos and tragedy, Hank Williams still found time to write two of country music's greatest songs: "Your Cheating Heart" and "Kaw-Liga."
If there's a band in the hereafter, it'll be playing nothing but country and western tunes--America's deadliest musical genre

By John Marr

ROCK MUSIC has been frequently noted, by friend and foe alike, as a genre that exacts a serious toll from its practitioners. From Buddy Holly's plane crash to Kurt Cobain's suicide, the evolution of rock & roll has been marked by sordid scandals, gruesome tragedies and far too many youthful corpses.

Yet rock & roll is far from the deadliest musical genre. In terms of both sordidness and sheer body count, it must bow before its both parent and cousin form: country music. As much as anti-rock zealots sing its praises, the history of country music is laced with enough crime and death to lay to rest any fantasy of rural innocence. If there's a band in the hereafter, they'll be playing "Pistol Packin' Mama," not "Johnny B. Goode."

Roosting at the pinnacle of the dead country music star Parthenon is Hank Williams. He was undisputedly the "King of Country Music," with a string of hits like "Love Sick Blues" and "Honky-Tonkin' " that command a passionate following today. But for all his success, the last month of his life was chaos. He was divorcing one wife, marrying another, and paying off a pregnant girlfriend. A host of ailments, exacerbated by heavy drinking, had turned him into a 29-year-old walking corpse. Despite his hits, his alcohol-induced unreliability as a performer had reduced him to playing high school gyms and small honky-tonks in the South and Midwest. Yet in the midst of this turmoil, he found time to record two of his greatest songs: "Your Cheating Heart" and "Kaw-Liga."

The inevitable happened as he was being driven to a New Year's Night show in Canton, Ohio, in 1953. At a gas station in Oak Hill, W.Va., his driver noticed Hank looked worse than when he'd been carried into the car a few hours earlier. Although no one was surprised, the exact details are vague. Most likely, Hank had sedated himself to death with a mixture of alcohol and chloral hydrate (a quack alcoholism treatment) topped off with a last-minute morphine injection for his spinal pain.

The outpouring of real and manufactured grief was on par with what it would have been if Elvis had died after recording "Heartbreak Hotel." The funeral was a spectacle, his posthumous records were massive hits, and both his widows hit the boards as "Mrs. Hank Williams." But tragedy dogged his survivors. Son Hank Williams Jr., pushed out on stage at 11 to play Daddy's songs, grew up to become a major star in his own right, but not before suffering a near-fatal climbing accident and bouts with chemicals more sophisticated than alcohol.

Hank's second widow had equally bad luck with her next husband, country singer Johnny Horton. He, too, reached the pinnacle of the country music world when "The Battle of New Orleans" topped both the country and pop charts in 1959. But he was dead within the year, killed in a car crash en route to a Texas gig. The tearful two-time widow reported he'd kissed her farewell on the same cheek as Hank had before his last ride.

Patsy Cline
After Midnight: A plane crash ended Patsy Cline's life before she could enjoy her success.

Patsy Cline
and the
Kansas City Curse


AN EVEN longer-reaching skein of death was started by Patsy Cline. The first woman country singer to cross over to the pop charts with hits like "Crazy," Cline was riding on the success of being named the Country Music Association's "Entertainer of the Year" for 1963. Yet she would only live to enjoy life at the top for a few short months.

It started with a car crash that killed "Cactus" Jack Call, a country disc jockey in Kansas City. Some genius thought it would be a nice gesture to have some Grand Ol' Opry stars play a benefit for his widow and orphans. A whole raft of stars, including Cline, came through. But for some reason, only $3,000 was raised.

Cline planned to return to Nashville on a private plane piloted by her manager, Randy Hughes. Also on board were "Cowboy" Copas, Hughes' father-in-law and an Opry star in his own right, and Hawkshaw Hawkins, another Opry performer whose new single, "Lonesome 7-7203," would hit No. 1 on the country charts after his death.

The small plane was caught in a storm and crashed near Camden, Tenn. The impact destroyed the craft and shredded the bodies of the four on board beyond all recognition. It was only through their wallets that coroners were able to identify the three men.

Also on the bill of that ill-starred benefit was Jack Anglin, half of the duo "Johnny & Jack" that had launched Kitty Welles. No fool, he returned to Nashville via a chartered craft. But death would not be cheated. Two days later, while driving to Patsy's memorial, he lost control and plunged down an embankment. Although he was still alive when pulled from the wreckage, he was DOA at the hospital.

But not even Anglin's death stopped the toppling dominos of tragedy. Among the pallbearers at Anglin's funeral was singer Jim Reeves, who racked up 46 country Top 10 hits in the '50s and early '60s. Yet even his two-stages-removed connection to the fateful benefit was enough. Less than 18 months later, he crashed his plane in the woods near the Nashville airport while flying with his pianist. Both men were killed, victims of the far-reaching curse of Kansas City.

Country Hits Just
Keep on Coming

COUPLED WITH tragedy, country music has a violent, homicidal side. In a culture where guns are almost as common as cowboy boots, and a few prison terms can do wonders for an "outlaw" image, country musicians have turned honky-tonks, bars and even their own homes into the killing fields of the music industry.

The list of would-be violators of the sixth commandment reads like a who's who of the Country Music Association. David Allen Coe claims to have beaten a fellow inmate to death during one of his several prison stints. Johnny "Take This Job and Shove It" Paycheck elected to end an argument in a bar, reportedly over the relative merits of deer versus turtle meat, by shooting his opponent, earning a prison term for attempted murder.

And they don't call Jerry Lee Lewis "The Killer" for nothing. He may never have been indicted, but there was the case of his bassist, who was awarded $125,000 in damages after Lewis shot him in the chest with a .357 Magnum, and also two ex-wives who wound up dead under suspicious circumstances after making plain their plans to leave the temperamental keyboardist. Lewis' comparatively long life is no surprise; some people are too mean to die.

Undoubtedly the sickest, most brutal, and thus most fascinating, country star was Spade Cooley. After moving to the West Coast to be Roy Rogers' stand-in in 1934, the fiddler co-founded the western swing style. Massively popular through the '40s and early '50s, Cooley's band played to huge crowds up and down the coast, and had one of the top shows in Los Angeles in the early days of TV. However, all good things end. Public tastes turned away from western swing; the TV show was canceled, the gigs disappeared, and Cooley went into genteel semi-retirement as a real estate developer.

Unlike other musical has-beens, Cooley was apparently well-set financially, but all was not well at the ranch. A domineering individual, Cooley resented his wife, Ella Mae, having any outside interests or contacts, keeping her a virtual prisoner on their ranch near Bakersfield. But it was 1961 and winds of change were sweeping the land. Ella Mae wanted more than a life in a cowboy doll house and planned to leave him. According to Spade, she confessed to affairs with anything wearing cowboy boots, including Roy Rogers, and planned to abandon him for the sinful environment of a California sex cult.

Like any good, God-fearin' family man, Spade disciplined his errant wife. When their 14-year-old daughter came home that afternoon, he saw an opportunity to teach a filial lesson. Announcing, "You're going to watch me kill her," he dragged Ella Mae's battered nude body from the shower and proceeded to stomp her to death in front of the horrified teen. When police arrived, he attributed his wife's injuries to a fall from a moving car. Among other things, this failed to explain the source of the cigarette burns and the vaginal and anal lacerations revealed by the autopsy. Cooley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.

And fate would have the last laugh. In 1969, Cooley was granted a 72-hour furlough from prison to perform a police benefit in Oakland. Cooley played three of his hits for the hooting crowd and took his final bow. Less than an hour later he collapsed backstage, dead of a heart attack.

For all its sentiment and trappings of rural innocence, country music is even more efficient at killing its own than the most death-obsessed rock sub-genre. Truly, the singing cowboy's real problem is summed up not by a lament for lost love, but by one of Hank Williams' autobiographical numbers: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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