Old’ Hank’s Carr
by Gary Wright
“Everything is so random there must be a pattern.”
As the sun was rising on New Year’s Day about 65 years ago, a beautiful, shiny blue Cadillac pulled up the Hill, West Virginia hospital in the cold winter darkness. The driver, just 18, was very fatigued and very frightened. The passenger, barely 29, was very dead.
The driver, Charles Carr, was a freshman at Auburn University and had been hired at the last minute by Hank Williams to drive him to a performance in Canton, Ohio. Williams, who had been plagued since childhood with spina bifida, a painful malady of the spine, had been addicted to pain medication for years. In his later years he had commenced to augment his addiction with copious amounts of beer and whatever hard liquor he came close to. In addition to morphine and booze, Hank regularly took a dangerous sedative, chloral hydrate, to sleep. He was in a lot of pain and felt that in his medicated state he needed a designated driver.
The exact cause and time of the death of country music’s first superstar remains much of a mystery. Carr had stopped the vehicle some miles before the hospital when Hank had gone silent in the back seat. He stopped and, upon checking, found that Hank was unconscious. Roaring into the hospital, Carr pleaded with the attendant, “Give Hank something to bring him around.” But even a cursory exam revealed that Hank Williams was indeed, dead. The exact cause of death will never be known, for no autopsy was performed and no toxicology tests were run.
“I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”
Hank’s new Cadillac was one thing he cherished more than just about anything. When Carr got behind the wheel of Williams’ convertible Cadillac, Hank’s career and soon enough, his life, was in a meltdown mode. He had been barred from the Grand Ole Opry for drunkenness, and demoted to the Louisiana Hayride, a definite step backward. He was now back to playing the very honky-tonks and dives he had just graduated from a few years earlier. Recently divorced from his first wife, Audrey, he had remarried to Billie Jean Jones, but was currently staying at his mother’s downtown Montgomery boardinghouse.
Williams was riding around in his beloved 1952 Cadillac with his stage suits, guitar, and other items he thought would be needed on a short tour through Ohio and West Virginia. During the tour, soon after the two drove across the West Virginia state line, Carr stopped at a gas station to fill the Cadillac’s tank. At that time, Carr noticed that Williams was passed out in the back seat. When he checked on him, Williams’ body was unresponsive and becoming rigid. Likely dead, the 18 year-old, terrified Carr raced to find the nearest hospital.
It’s unclear what killed Williams, but we do know that he drank often on the tour and had asked his doctor that night to give him a shot of morphine before he left Montgomery to help with his back pain. The sleep aid, chloral hydrate was never found, so, it is presumed that he took that chemical some time during the trip. Chloral Hydrate is the main ingredient in a “Mickey Finn.”
Charles Carr at the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams in 2007
They had planned to fly from Knoxville, Tenn., to Charleston, but poor weather canceled the flight and Williams canceled the concert. At a Knoxville hotel, Williams summoned a doctor and received two more morphine shots, along with some vitamin B-12, according to Carr. The Cadillac in which Williams’ body was found, the car he used on that final tour, is now preserved at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the centerpiece of the museum, which is also filled with memorabilia and portraits and more.
Charles Carr died at 79 in 2013, forever known as the Carr that drove Hank’s death car. Carr went on to complete college, serve in the U.S. Army in Europe, and become a successful businessman and family man in Montgomery. He shunned all the limelight connected to him driving Hank Williams’ death car. Carr’s father was a friend of the Williams family, and prevailed on his son to drive Hank on that fateful tour from Montgomery to a New Year’s Eve show in Charleston, West Virginia, and then to another concert scheduled for Jan. 1, 1953, in Canton, Ohio.
Hank Williams knew his destiny from a very early age. He always wanted to be a singer and a song writer. He wrote over 700 songs and more than 100 were hits and have been recorded by some of the biggest names in the business. Ol’ Hank wrote songs about the bible, about getting drunk, about losing a loved one, about walking out on a loved one, and about every other sad and lonely issue you can imagine. Some of his issues, you can’t even imagine. His songs still make you laugh, sometimes they make you cry and sometimes both at once.
Ol’ Hank had spent most of his life clawing his way to the top, and, when he finallyachieved it, he threw it all away and spiraled to the lowest depths. One thing, though, about his songs; they are genuine, for he lived every minute of every word in his songs. The last song he recorded, perhaps not coincidentally, was
“I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.”
Photo of Charles Carr at the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams in 2007 (AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, Julie Bennett)