Country music has its ghost stories, of course. Hank Williams Sr. in his afterlife has been called “the Phantom of the Opry” thanks to his appearances at the Ryman Auditorium, and Hurricane Mills, the wee Middle Tennessee town that Loretta Lynn owns, has many apparitions and other supernatural occurrences.
And then there’s Johnny Horton and his premonition.
John Gale Horton (1925-1960), rockabilly and country singer who had his greatest success with such “saga” songs as “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Springtime in Alaska” and “Sink the Bismarck”, lived his whole adult life under a conviction that he would die young and violently by the actions of a drunk man. The late Merle Kilgore told a story about how, some six months before Horton’s death, Horton came over to the fence that separated their backyards, carrying a guitar. When Kilgore came over to talk with him, Horton handed him the guitar with the words, “I’ve got the feelin’ Ol’ John’s not gonna be around much longer, and I want you to have this.” Kilgore tried to give back the instrument, but Horton refused to take it.
On November 5th, 1960, Horton’s premonition came true. He had played at the famed Skyline Club in Austin, Texas the night before–he refused to go into the club’s bar, for fear that a drunk would start a fight and kill him there–and was driving back to Shreveport, Louisiana, planning to go fishing later in the day. With him were his bass player, Tommy Tomlinson, and his manager and songwriting partner, Tillman Franks. Horton was behind the wheel, and on a bridge on Highway 79 near Milano, Texas, his Cadillac was hit head-on by a drunk man in a pickup. Franks suffered head injuries; Tomlinson’s legs were badly fractured and one eventually had to be amputated. Horton was alive when pulled from the wreckage, but died on the way to the hospital. The drunken driver, James Evan Davis, was not injured.
You’ve all seen the lists that people who like coincidences make of the similarities in the lives and deaths of our presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Interestingly enough, there is a similar list of coincidences in the lives of Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Horton.
The first and biggest coincidence is this: at the time of his death Ol’ Hank was married to a young beauty named Billie Jean Jones. For both of them, it was a second marriage. They had been married barely two and a half months when Hank died of drug-induced heart failure in the wee hours of January 1, 1953. Nine months later, in September 1953, Billie Jean Williams married Johnny Horton. It was his second marriage, and would end with his death seven years later.
Johnny Horton heard of Hank’s death while driving near Milano, Texas–where he would die in 1960.
Both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton played their last shows at the Skyline Club in Austin. Hank was on his way to his first show in a month, a club date in Canton, Ohio, when he was found dead in the back seat of a Cadillac; Johnny Horton was driving a Cadillac the night of his death.
At least one collector of those coincidences says that both Williams and Horton kissed Billie Jean on the same cheek the last time she saw either of them alive, but surely that’s a bit much.
And then there’s one last quite personal coincidence: Ours was a volatile household, largely thanks to my father’s petty authoritarianism. When things would get too much for us–particularly my sister–she would pull out an old vinyl album called THE LEGENDARY JOHNNY HORTON and play one song. One song. We knew Sis had had it up to her eyeballs when we heard an old steel-string guitar play a short austere intro, followed by Johnny Horton’s voice singing “I just don’t like this kind of livin’/I’m tired of doin’ all the givin’”–
One more coincidence, for that song was one of Hank Williams Sr.’s, sung by a man whose life had curious links to Ol’ Hank’s.