On Tuesday, Jett Williams will travel the same road Hank Williams took on his last ride.
“I Saw the Light,” a movie chronicling the life of Hank Williams, will premiere Monday night in Montgomery. On Tuesday, Hank’s daughter, Jett Williams, will travel along Highway 11 following the route of Hank’s Last Ride on a promotional tour for the movie.
Hank stopped briefly in Fort Payne for a quick bite to eat, a shave and haircut and a bottle of whiskey. What Hank actually did in Fort Payne that fateful day —Dec. 31, 1952 — seemingly passed into legend. But two constants — the bottle of whiskey and the barber shop chair Hank sat in — remain in local lore
Randy Grider, publisher of Lookout Alabama, researched the events of Hank’s visit for a 2013 article. Grider said he became aware of the barber shop chair after it was mentioned in an article in Road and Track.
On Tuesday, Jett Williams will be at a Alabama Department of Tourism press conference at the Redmont Hotel, then travel up U.S. Highway 11 to Fort Payne for a 3 p.m. press conference at Beason’s Barber Shop, where she will see the chair where her famed father got his last haircut.
Grider said the story of the chair is intertwined with the friendship between barbers.
“Hank was only in Fort Payne for about an hour,” Grider said. “Hank’s chauffeur, Charles Carr, stopped at the American Cafe at 209 Gault Avenue and they had a light breakfast, which was mostly coffee. While they were there Hank asked the waitress where he could get a shave and a haircut. She told him at Pete Carter’s, which was just down the block.
“Hank left the American Cafe and walked south to 111 Gault Avenue, which is next to where The Spot is today. Carr got in the 1952 powder blue Cadillac convertible and backed it down the street to 111 Gault.
“Hank went in and got his haircut and shave from Howard Simpson. After the haircut, Hank wanted some whiskey. Since DeKalb County was dry, Carr knew the best place to get whiskey would be from a taxi cab company. He most likely drove up to Robertson and Lankford Cab Company at 315 Gault Avenue, which is next to Southern Properties today.
“Hank never got out of the car. Someone went up on Lookout Mountain and got him a bottle of bonded whiskey and they left around 9:30 that morning for Charleston, South Carolina.”
Grider said the plan was to drive to Knoxville, Tennessee, and take a flight to Charleston. But, the weather was too foggy for them to make the trip. Grider said they contacted the promoter and told him they weren’t going to make it and he told them to be in Canton, Ohio, the next night. Grider said they left immediately. Hank died from a heart attack sometime during the night. Carr realized the musician was dead when he stopped in Oak Hill, West Virginia.
Grider said after looking into the history of the chair, he concluded the chair at Beason’s Barber Shop was indeed the chair where Hank got his last haircut.
“Alton Beason was 10 at the time Hank stopped in Fort Payne,” Grider said. “Howard Simpson bought Carter’s Barber Shop from Pete Carter. Alton Beason went to work for Simpson and gave his first haircut in the same chair Hank sat in.”
Grider said Beason went on to open his own barber shop and the two men remained friends and even cut each other’s hair. Simpson eventually moved the chair to his home and used it to cut hair, Grider said. As the years rolled by, Grider said, Beason asked to buy the chair if Simpson ever decided to sell it.
When Simpson died in 2002, he wrote into his will an option for Beason to buy the chair. Beason purchased the chair from Simpson’s widow and it holds a special place of honor in Beason’s Barber Shop.
Grider said while researching Hank’s visit to Fort Payne, he talked with an Indiana police investigator, Brian Turpin. Turpin wrote two books on Hank Williams and had done extensive research on Hank’s Last Ride. The research included a trip to Fort Payne to interview witnesses about Hank’s visit.
Grider said he was able to verify times through Turpin’s research and the locations of the businesses he visited from a 1950 phone book at the DeKalb County Public Library.
Grider said he could also put to rest any theories that it was the bonded bourbon Hank bought in DeKalb County that killed him. He said he had obtained a copy of the police report from the investigation into Hank’s death. He said the on an inventory report, one item listed was “bonded whiskey, unopened.”
Grider said he was also able to confirm the audience in Canton, stood up and sang, “I Saw the Light,” when informed of Hank’s death.
“I Saw the Light” will open in theaters March 25 and stars Tim Hiddleston as Hank and Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams. David Krumholtz and Bradley Whitford also star.
Jett Williams will continue traveling along Hank’s Last Ride on Wednesday, stopping at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville — where Hank and Carr stopped briefly to call the promoter — and for the installation of a historic marker in Oak Hill.