DRY RIDGE, N.C. — Hard as it may be to believe, Hank Williams, undisputed king of country music, squeezed all of his genius into a few short, turbulent years. He died at age twenty-nine of his own genius, never finding what he craved most—“to be regular folk playing for regular folk.” Few outside the confines of Bunkum County knew the whereabouts of Hank on Christmas Day 1952. Conrad Slocum, longtime resident of Bunkum County, does know, and he sat me down one Christmas Eve and told the tale.
Toward the end, Hank had tired of all the glitz, the money, the road, and most of all, the legend. On Christmas Eve 1952, he found a poor soul on the down-and-out and paid a thousand dollars for his jalopy and threadbare overalls. They switched clothes, and Hank hit the road. He drove aimlessly through the night, sober for the first time in many a month. Tired, broke, and hungry, he wound up in Dry Ridge around daybreak.
Though drink and despair had left Hank a mere scarecrow of himself, Sheriff Hec Rainey recognized the “stranger.” Though gone many years now, Hec Rainey is still held in high regard in these parts. The sheriff inquired as to the stranger’s predicament. He had sensed the torment and decided to give the gift Hank wanted most. The sheriff ended up inviting Hank to a little down-home Christmas—Bunkum style. The town agreed.
Here in Bunkum County there’s an age-old tradition that each year the local folk gather and have Christmas dinner as one. Thinking his masquerade a success, Hank gratefully joined in. When dinner ended, the musicians tuned up, and a bona fide country Christmas
Noticing Hank’s itchy fingers, Conrad offered him his guitar and then followed along on jug. Hank, thin as a rail, in dire need of a shave, confused in life, and unwittingly near his own demise, stole the show. One solid hour saw Hank Williams singing songs that were obviously vintage Hank—yet had never been heard before.
True to their word, the people of Bunkum County never let Hank know they knew. Polite applause, mingled with misty eyes, embraced his every song. When the party finally broke up, he spent the night on Conrad’s couch. Early next morning, Hank took his leave. The two shook hands, and as Hank reluctantly pulled away, Conrad smiled and said, “Thanks, Hank.” Six days later, on January 1, 1953, Hank Williams lay dead.
Conrad always records the Christmas show’s music, and 1952 was no exception. He got up from his chair and went to the attic, returning with an old reel-to-reel tape machine. At his kitchen table, we listened to the bittersweet history of a man’s all-too-short life.
The two songs I most remember were “Down Home for the Holidays,” a song I suspect he wrote sitting there at Christmas dinner, and a poignant ballad called, “I Wish I Was Half the Man I Used to Be.” The picture of two teary-eyed men sitting in a nondescript, candlelit kitchen as the tape flapped on to infinity haunts my every Christmas Eve. There in the wastebasket, we burned the tape and laid Hank’s ghost to rest.