Contributed by Columnist Dirk Ellingson
Longtime locals might shrug their shoulders, but I find it an interesting bit of Minden trivia that one of the greatest stars in the country music pantheon once tied the knot here. Hank Williams married 19-year old Billie Jean Jones Eshleman before the Minden Justice of the Peace on October 18, 1952. The daughter of a Bossier City police chief, she too was a singer-songwriter. Williams was introduced to her by Faron Young, a rising country star himself.
Public wedding ceremonies attended by thousands followed the next day at New Orleans Civic Auditorium concerts. Then as now, events in southeast Louisiana received more press attention than our opposite corner of the state. We’re long accustomed to that I suppose. But Williams officially first married his second wife here in Minden. Although the legality of both Williams marriages was in question because of laws requiring reconciliation periods meant his two wives had not waited long enough from their previous divorces before remarrying.
Williams was one of the prototype greats of country music. He was nicknamed “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” for his incredible talent penning song lyrics. In his 2019 PBS documentary, Ken Burns devoted most of the third episode titled “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” to Williams. He was crucial to the evolution of country music.
Hiram “Hank” Williams was born September 17, 1923 in Butler County, Alabama. He learned guitar from an African American blues musician named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne in Georgiana, Alabama. The nickname came from teetotaler. Payne didn’t abstain from alcohol. He mixed it with tea. Williams was an 8-year old kid when he met Payne. Payne gave his young protégé guitar lessons for meals and money.
Williams moved to Montgomery and began his professional music career as a teenager in 1937. A street performer and talent show contest winner at the Empire Theater, Williams backed by his band the Drifting Cowboys performed on radio station WSFA (now WLWI, a conservative talk radio AM station also broadcasting minor league baseball games of the Montgomery Biscuits). Managed by his mother Lillie, Williams dropped out of school in 1939 at age 16 to be a full-time musician.
Williams was born with mild spina bifida and he suffered back pain his entire life. He mixed prescription pain medicines with alcohol and became addicted. His back troubles kept him out of the army but the World War II draft depleted the Drifting Cowboys.
Audrey Sheppard was added to the band as a backup singer and upright bass player. Williams married Sheppard in 1944 at a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama. She became his manager. His alcoholism made for a tumultuous marriage.
Williams was rejected at an audition for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1946. But he did impress Fred Rose, the President of Sterling Records and was signed to a record deal. The Williams classic Honky Tonkin’ was first cut on short-lived Sterling Records.
MGM Records was his next record company and Move It On Over in 1947 was his first hit. Years before Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, some cite Move It On Over as one of rock and roll’s first records. Williams became a part of the Louisiana Hayride radio show broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium. More great local music trivia is that a few years later at this venue in 1956, announcer Horace Logan reportedly coined the phrase “Elvis has left the building” following a Presley performance.
Three years after they rejected his first audition, the Grand Ole Opry welcomed Williams on stage in 1949. His Ryman Auditorium debut on June 11 led to six encores. He had unequivocally hit the big time.
Hit records followed that formed the bedrock of the country music canon. Lovesick Blues, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Hey Good Lookin’, Cold Cold Heart, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), I Saw the Light, Your Cheatin’ Heart. All Hank Williams. He often tugs your heartstrings but I think never more so than the plaintive I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Williams sings, “I’ve never seen a night so long when time goes crawling by. The moon just went behind the clouds to hide its face and cry.” Those lyrics accompanied by steel guitar remain a chilling combination over seven decades later.
In 1952, the Grand Ole Opry dropped Williams from its roster for missing performances and repeated drunkenness. Opry star Roy Acuff once told Williams, “You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.” Williams returned to Shreveport and the Louisiana Hayride show. Williams and Sheppard divorced and he moved back in with his mother. A few months later he married Billie Jean Jones. Despite substance abuse problems, Williams’ popularity never waned.
Hank Williams died of a heart attack in transit to a concert on January 1, 1953. He hired a college student to drive him during a terrible winter storm. A doctor administered vitamin B12 and a little morphine in a Knoxville hotel. It was a potent mix with the alcohol Williams imbibed. About the time the car crossed from Tennessee to West Virginia, the driver realized his passenger had died. Williams was 29 years old.
He was among the inaugural class of 1961 inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville along with Jimmie Rodgers “The Singing Brakeman” (another early giant of country music who tragically died young in 1933) and Fred Rose, the Sterling Records executive who first signed Williams to a recording contract. Rose is credited co-writing with Williams I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Recorded in June 1952 and released that November, it was the last single released while Williams was still alive. Chet Atkins was a guitarist on the record.
In 1953, Williams first wife Sheppard paid his second wife Jones $30,000 to give up the title of Hank Williams’ Widow. Billie Jean next married another country singer Johnny Horton who also died young in 1960, killed in a collision with a drunk driver. She was twice a widow before she turned thirty. At last report, Billie Jean Horton is still with us residing in a Shreveport assisted living facility. She’s 87 years old.