As Steve Earle notes from experience, “it takes money and success for the wheels to really come off”. In 1943 Williams had married Audrey Sheppard Guy, a divorcee with a young daughter who harboured musical aspirations of her own – despite a singing voice that could, and frequently did, drive those who heard it to strong drink. It was an unhappy marriage: Sullivan recalls Williams phoning one morning to say he couldn’t make his radio slot because Audrey “had put an ice pick through the tyres on his car”. Their son Hank Jr, born in 1949, couldn’t save the marriage, and despite their difficulties, the divorce in 1952 deeply wounded Williams.
He was also physically battered. A bad fall during a hunting trip in 1951 exacerbated his spinal pain, and he had developed heart problems. He now travelled to gigs with his personal quack, “Doc” Toby Marshall, who liberally dispensed morphine, chloral hydrate and numerous painkillers that Williams washed down with alcohol.
But for all his troubles, Williams was not a brooding presence. Ray Price remembers him warmly as “just a plain, simple country cat who enjoyed his friends, his singing, hunting and fishing. He had a good sense of humour, he loved practical jokes.”
Others saw different. His second wife Billie Jean Jones, whom he married in October 1952 “to prove a point to Audrey”, according to Price, later told a friend: “Hank wasn’t there. You’re sleeping with a person in the same bed, and yet they’re not really there. Their body is there, but the real soul of the person isn’t there at all.”
Whatever his problems, alcohol helped him disappear. “Hank was a binge drinker, he might be straight as an arrow for a week then he’d take one sip and wouldn’t stop until he was incapacitated,” says Sullivan. “When he was drunk he could get pretty cantankerous, he wasn’t nice to be around.”
The writer John Gilmore spent time with him in the parking lot of the Riverside Rancho in LA before a show in spring 1952. “He looked bad. Bald, practically, and skeletal. His hand was like a dead person’s hand.” Williams was drinking whisky from a bag and at one point pissed himself. “I felt for him,” says Gilmore. “He was congenial, with a kind of knightly charm, but he was saying these odd, dark things about ‘getting all busted up and coming down on the side of night’. I think those thoughts circled around his head all the time.”
“Hank was just a very lonely person,” offers Ray Price. “He couldn’t tell anybody about it but he could sing about it.” There’s no sense of pride or glamour in his songs’ depiction of the hard side of life. Williams was no willing hedonist. “I don’t think he was a proud alcoholic, I’ve never understood the glorification of that,” says young country singer Caitlin Rose. “One thing that bothers me is the idea that ‘Hank did it hard, so we should do it hard….’ I don’t think that’s what singing sad songs is all about, and I don’t think that’s what Hank is about, either.” As Steve Earle puts it: “I think he would have been just as good and compelling if he hadn’t been fucked up. We make too much of it.”