Hank Williams, above; at right, Jewell at her table where she and Hank wrote songs and visited; Audrey, below left; below right, the label for "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy."
By David House
I knew my mother, Jewell House, and Hank Williams bonded as friends and colleagues through the first song she sold to him, “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy.”
But as I’ve come across bits and pieces about their relationship from 1948 through his death on New Year’s Day 1953 at age 29, it's clear that they must have been closer than I thought.
I've learned, for instance, that Williams would drive from Shreveport, La., to our house in Texarkana, Texas, to visit and work on songs with mother.
They shared a deep friendship, said Frank Page, legendary Louisiana Hayride announcer whose career included introducing Elvis Presley to the world from his Hayride mic.
In brief 2011 telephone interviews, Page and Williams' steel guitarist, Felton Pruitt, remembered Williams calling mother out to the Hayride stage to sing "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" with him when he premiered the song in 1950.
That was an unplanned surprise move by Williams but would have been fine with Hayride founder and producer Horace Logan, Page said. "Hank was big enough he could do most anything he wanted.” Plus, he added, “your mother and Horace were good friends” by then.
Jewell and Hank “must have been very close for him to call her out and have her sing with him, " Page said. "Showed he was fond of her and thought she had talent.” Jewell, an alto who sang in the key of G, had a beautiful voice and once was offered a recording contract by Capitol Records, which she declined in favor of raising her two sons and staying close to home.
I’ve never seen a photo of mother and Williams together, but Williams, three years younger than mom, held a preeminent place in her heart.
“He gave me my first start, recorded my first tune, and made a hit out of it,” she told freelance writer James Presley in an October 1970 interview for a Sunday, Oct. 18, feature in the Texarkana (Tex.-Ark.) Gazette.
“No one will ever take Hank Williams’ place,” mother said. “He was a wonderful person. On and off stage, he was just the same.
"He was everybody’s friend … .”
Mother booked Williams for shows in Texarkana, worked with him backstage at the Louisiana Hayride, corresponded with him and, as I recall from her stories, was a friend to his wife, Audrey, particularly during their marriage’s tumultuous times in Shreveport and for years to come.
“When Hank, Jr., was born (May 26, 1949, in Shreveport), I sent him a little bottle holder and a bunny set,” mom said, “and I sent (Audrey) a bed set, and years later when I saw her, after Hank was dead, she remembered that, and tears came to her eyes.”
Mother’s high-energy, positive personality packed into a beautiful, supportive heart may have attracted Williams as much as her songwriting talent. And in mother, Williams, who struggled with spina bifida and liquor as well as other challenges, would have found a sisterly spirit at its happiest when delivering healing care and consolation.
The quickest way to get mother’s attention was to be hurting – physically, emotionally, spiritually. She would do her best to help someone past a low point no matter their station in life.
She and Williams would have shared much in common, and I imagine they talked about it all. Through tough personal experiences, they probably were kindred spirits who knew whereof they spoke when they wrote and sang of life’s miseries, joys and shattered hopes.
They both grew up poor and knew hard life during the Great Depression. They had strong Baptist mothers who had to take full charge of things because their husbands were gone. Mother’s sharecropper dad had died of a heart attack at home on the Red River County, Texas., farm in 1935. Williams’ dad was away for years of treatment in Veterans Administration hospitals, according to Colin Escott’s brilliant biography, “Hank Williams.”
Each had deep Alabama roots. Williams was born Sept. 17, 1923, in Mount Olive in south central Alabama. Mother’s mom, Minnie Mae Treece Hancock, was a native of Jackson County, Ala., having grown up poor on a Sand Mountain farm outside of Scottsboro.
Each loved sacred songs and “hillbilly” music (a term mother found disrespectful) and found their destinies along its paths.
I didn’t know of Williams’ visits to our small frame house at 1619 W. 17th St. until Jim Evans, a longtime friend of mother’s and an accomplished steel guitarist, told me in 2011. Evans played steel guitar on the Louisiana Hayride and for several of its stars, including Johnny Horton -- thanks to Jewell and her connections. An electrical engineer, he also invented in the early ’60s the much sought-after Evans amplifier.
I was surprised when he mentioned the collaboration between Williams and mother. I remembered many artists visiting mom at our house to talk business and work on songs, but I had no recollection of Williams’ visits, because I was in grade school and was never at home when he was there. However, my younger brother, Rick, who wasn’t old enough to start school until 1953, remembered Williams.
“They (mother and Williams) would work on songs at our breakfast table in that little nook that dad built onto the house,” he recalled. “I’d be running through the house, and mom would always stop me and say, ‘Son, this is Hank Williams.’ I was little, and that didn’t mean anything to me, but I remember him. He had a real nice smile and was tall and skinny. I’d say, ‘Hi.’ He’d smile at me and say hi, and then I’d run outside and play.”
Gene Carpenter, one of Evans’ friends, was a young Texarkana guitarist who played at many area honky-tonks and viewed mother as a mentor and hero. He remembered asking mother whether he could come over sometime and meet Williams.
“Your mother would tell me when he’d be coming,” he said. “I missed him every time,” he said, because he couldn’t escape work or his jealous wife, who resented his passion for music.
No one I’ve talked with has any idea what mother and Williams wrote together. She never talked to me about her collaboration with any artist as far as I can remember, but I do remember this incident:
Early one summer morning in the early ’60s when I was around 17, mother had cooked breakfast for me. She had turned on the radio, and as I ate, the station played Ray Charles’ cover of “Take These Chains From My Heart,” Williams’ hit release after he died.
“I love that song,” I said as mother walked across the kitchen toward the refrigerator.
Mom stopped and just stood there, staring straight ahead as though stunned. I’d never seen her act like that. Her stoic demeanor worried me.
“I wrote that song,” she said softly.
My heart instinctively ached for her, and I fumbled around for words of consolation.
“Sounds like you – how you write,” I said, chomping on fried eggs and toast. She didn’t reply nor did she speak further. I wish I would have asked her to tell me more, but I dared not. I knew I'd said something serious and felt that I should leave mom alone. I thanked her for breakfast and left.
Authorship credit for that wonderful song belongs to publisher Fred Rose – for whom mother wrote – and Acuff-Rose staff songwriter Hy Heath, one of mother’s friends and colleagues. I’d bet mother had at least some part in the song’s development. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that mother was also involved with Williams on “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “You Win Again” and other songs of his.
Via email, Evans shared many memories of mother and insights into her work, but none more compelling than this final recollection in regard to the bonds between Williams and mother:
“Jewell went to Hank's funeral (Sunday, Jan. 4, 1953, in Montgomery (Ala.) City Auditorium) and sat with the family."
She was, after all, his sister. In spirit.
A song that spoke to Hank
In the months following Hank and Audrey Williams’ July 1952 divorce, "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" apparently spoke to Hank’s heart in far greater ways, according to an anecdote from songwriter and performer “Country” Jack Harper of Leland, Miss.
Harper knew Tommy Bishop, guitarist for Red Sovine’s band in the early ‘50s and a guest at Jewell’s home in Texarkana when Sovine would bring his band there for visits and jam sessions.
“Sovine would let Tommy work the road with Hank during the week and for some nightclubs away from Shreveport,” Harper wrote in an email.
During a visit with Bishop at his Vicksburg, Miss., home, before his death in November 2011, Bishop talked with Harper about playing lead guitar for Hank Williams’ last public performance on Dec. 19, 1952, at the Skyline Club north of Austin, Tex., and he spoke of driving Williams on the singer’s road tours.
Bishop “mentioned this lady, Jewell House, that wrote songs, and was a good cook, in Texarkana,” Harper wrote, “and he told a story about Hank and 'My Son Calls Another Man Daddy.'
“Tommy would have to drive Hank’s car, and Hank would sing that song over and over in the back seat with a guitar and a bottle.”