by Robert A. Waters
Country music is littered with the corpses of singers who died young. Three of my favorites are Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Horton, and Hank Williams. Between them, they created the music I grew up on and still love.
For the first eight years of my life, I lived with my grandparents. My oldest and fondest memories are of my grandfather rocking me on his knee and singing the old songs. Two of his favorites were Jimmie Rodgers classics: “Waiting for a Train” and “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.” Like Rodgers, my grandfather lived during the Depression, and knew what misery smelled like.
Jimmie Rodgers mixed blues, country, and jazz, as well as popular Tin Pan Alley songs to create a unique sound. While he’s best known for his yodels, Rodgers’ train songs came from his experiences of riding the rails. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 35. His last song, recorded in a studio in New York City, was called “Years Ago,” and told about how he longed for his boyhood days in Mississippi. Three days later, his lungs gave out and he was dead.
One of my favorite Rodgers songs is “Blue Yodel # 9 (Standing on the Corner).” The old acetate record has a hard-edged sound with Louis Armstrong literally blowing the lid off his trumpet while his wife, Lillian, plays back-up piano. The song just seethes with that 1930s New Orleans jazzy feel. The lyrics tell the story of a hustler, his moll, and her determination to get him out of jail. “She come to the joint, a .44 in each hand. She said, ‘Stand aside all you women and men, ‘cause I’m looking for my man.’”
Hank’s short life and meteoric rise to fame and stardom became a metaphor for many Southern children when I was young--if he can make it big, we thought, so can I. His death also became a metaphor.
Hank was born into abject poverty in Christiana, Alabama. His mother bought him a cheap guitar and he learned music from the streets and the churches in the area. Unfortunately, he also learned to drink. During his teenage years, Hank began playing with local bands and gained a following. He married the former Aubrey Sheppard and went to Nashville where he signed a song-writing contract with Acuff-Rose. Soon he became the 1950s version of a super-star.
One of Hank’s songs, “Cold, Cold Heart,” recorded reluctantly by Tony Bennett, helped launch the pop singer’s career. Soon his songs were all over the pop charts. Guy Mitchell, for example, recorded a hit with, “I Can’t Help It,” and Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford scored with, “Hey Good Lookin’.” In the meantime, his songs dominated hillbilly radio stations.
While Hank’s music was heard everywhere, his personal life was a disaster. Constant, searing back pain from a form of spina bifida left him in unrelenting misery. Drug and alcohol abuse took its toll as he began missing shows. His marriage to Audrey was in shambles--both took consolation in one-night stands. In short, Hank’s life was hell. On January 1, 1953, he passed away in the back of a car while traveling to a show in Ohio. For millions of later aspiring country music singers, the lyrics to a Larry Boone song rang true: "Everybody Wants to be Hank Williams (But Nobody Wants to Die)."
My favorite Hank Williams song is the religious spiritual, “I Saw the Light.”
In the late 1950s, Johnny Horton had hit after hit. Many of his songs crossed over, jumping from hillbilly stations onto the pop charts. “Sink the Bismark,” “North to Alaska,” and “Battle of New Orleans” stayed on top for months. These songs cemented Horton’s popularity, but many country fans loved his “rockabilly” sound even more than the chart-toppers. Songs such as “Honky Tonk Man,” “Cherokee Boogie,” and “Ole Slewfoot” would influence musicians for decades.
Horton was a family man and a teetotaler. He also had a premonition of his own death. It came true the night of November 5, 1960, when he died on a bridge near Milano, Texas. An on-coming drunk driver bounced off the railings of the bridge and smashed head-first into Horton’s car. The popular singer, only 35, had practiced driving his car into a ditch to avoid such situations, but on the bridge, he was unable to avoid the pickup truck speeding at him. He died a horrible, violent death.
My favorite Horton song is “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below).” Unfortunately, I don’t care for the backup singers. However, the tune and haunting banjo licks ring true as the lyrics describe Alaska, the last Wild West left in America.