Hank Williams Jr. is a living legend in the country music world.
Country music royalty as the son of Hank Williams, ol’ Bocephus has garnered quite the music career of his own with more than 50 studio albums, tons of #1 hits, Country Music Hall of Fame status, a handful of Entertainer of the Year awards, Grammy wins, ACM wins, CMA wins, not to mention just about anybody worth a shit in country music right now would call him an inspiration.
Hank Jr. is a polarizing figure no doubt, but his body of work speaks for itself.
However, most of you already know all that… so today, we’re gonna dive into one of the wildest stories in Hank Williams Jr.’s career… the time he fell off a mountain… literally.
And he lived to talk about it… so here it goes.
The Years Before
In the late ’60s, Hank Jr.’s career in music was starting to take off, but it was largely still in the shadow of his father. He recorded a number of Hank Sr. songs, some even doing quite well on the country charts, but by age 18, he was tired of being a “Hank Williams impersonator” of sorts.
He then cut ties with his mother, Audrey.
Wrapped up in drugs and alcohol, he was about 25 years old when he then made a suicide attempt in 1974.
“There was a doctor, he said: ‘You’ve been taught to look like, act like, and be like Hank Williams your whole life. He died at twenty-nine. And you’re going to beat him.’
Those were his exact words. And he said, ‘I want you to start saying, ‘the hell with that.’ And you go do your thing and you kiss that other stuff goodbye.’ That was some pretty good advice.”
Hank moved down to Alabama to get refocused on music and started playing with the likes of Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings, and the Marshall Tucker Band, before recording his breakout album, Hank Williams Jr. & Friends, in the early part of 1975.
However, before the album was released, Hank Jr. had a hiking accident that would forever alter the course of his career, or at least his image… an accident that he was incredibly lucky to survive.
On August 8th, 1975, Williams and a buddy, Dick Willey, went hiking in Montana, up near the Idaho border around Ajax Lake. With Ajax peak resting up 10,000 feet, Hank encountered a snow field about a thousand feet below it, but when he attempted to cross, the snow underneath him gave way, and fell down the mountain about 500 feet.
His face struck a boulder on the way down, fracturing his skull in a number of places. His nose, teeth and jaw were broken to pieces, his eye was hanging out of the socket, and a fracture in his skull had even left his brain exposed and sticking out through the hole in his forehead.
In his autobiography, Living Proof: The Hank Williams Story, Hank recalled the horrifying aftermath:
“I put my hands up to feel my nose. Where my nose should be there’s nothing there. My teeth and parts of my jaw fall out in my hand.
I raise my hand to my forehead, and where my forehead should be, there’s something soft and squishy. That’s my brain, I think.”
Dick Willey was able to run back up the mountain and find a park ranger who would radio for help. Hank was eventually rescued by helicopter, which flew him to Missoula Community Hospital…. but the damage was extensive.
Williams spent over seven hours in surgery, just to get him stable.
The Miraculous Recovery
And believe it or not, the first two people Hank Jr. saw when he woke in the hospital was none other than his godmother, June Carter Cash and her husband Johnny Cash.
“When I fell, there were only two people I saw when I woke up in the hospital bed, and that was Johnny and June.
June put a cross on me and told me it was all going to be OK. I never knew if I would sing again or not, talk again or not, let alone think about what I was going to look like. It was a scary time.”
According to The Tennessean, Audrey Williams, Hank Jr.’s mom flew up to Montana to attend to her son’s needs.
“It’s just a miracle the boy is living, but he’s young and he’s tough. It was just God’s will for him to live.”
Audrey died shortly thereafter.
Hank Jr. would go on to endure nine more surgeries to repair the damage to his head and face. We’re talking plates, skin grafts, the whole nine yards.
To cover the scars and permanent disfiguration, Hank grew out his beard, started wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat… and Hank Williams Jr.’s signature look was born.
“I’ve had dreams about it. I should have died. The doctor said he had worked on plenty of boys in Vietnam and, to be frank, they looked good compared to me.”
And the rest is history…
Many doctors thought might never sing again went on to release another 20-something albums, win countless awards, and forever enshrine himself among the country music legends.
Hank discussed the accident in more detail during this 1987 feature on ABC’s 20/20.
His song “All In Alabama,” a cut off his 1980 Habits Old And New album, details the aftermath of the accident.