Interview and Autograph Signing: Hilary Williams
Interview and Autograph Signing: Hilary Williams
November 6, 2010
When Hilary Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams, recalled the accident that almost took her life in March 2006, the details came spilling out in a rush.
Watch the complete video of this program.
On a beautiful spring day, driving her younger sister Holly to their maternal grandfather's funeral in Louisiana, the two women ran off Mississippi Highway 61 just moments after Hilary had convinced Holly to put on a seatbelt.
Hilary Williams shared her memories with museum staffer Michael McCall-co-curator of the exhibit Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy, Presented by SunTrust-and a capacity audience in the museum's Ford Theater. The program celebrated publication of Williams's just-published memoir, Sign of Life: A Story of Family, Tragedy, Music, and Healing. McCall asked Hilary to recall that day, and she was off.
"I remember Holly screaming," she stated matter-of-factly. "I jerked the wheel real hard. We went across the road. A wheel came off, [we] went back across the road, slid on our right side, and flipped in the field four times."
In quick cadence, Williams described blood loss, a dramatic drop in blood pressure, bones broken, organs ruptured, and the arrival of a lifesaving posse of a physical therapist, a truck driver, and a preacher who stopped to help.
"Then I died," Williams continued in the same frank tone. "It felt like I was drowning in a pool when I died, but once I died it was so peaceful. An angel came and took my hand, and I remember not wanting to go, but when I got to heaven I was so happy ..."
Williams had visions of longtime Hank Jr. manager Merle Kilgore, of her father's godparents Johnny and June Carter Cash, and of her grandparents Hank and Audrey Williams. "I felt like they sent me back," she said of the Williamses, "saying, 'It's not your time, honey.'"
For a week, Williams had had misgivings about making the trip. The night before, her hands shook, she had a migraine headache, and she suffered panic attacks. "Something was telling me not to go," she believed, "but I couldn't miss my grandfather's funeral."
M. B. Roberts co-wrote the newly published memoir with Williams. Roberts introduced Williams to the audience. "She sat by the fire and softly told a story that I could not believe," Roberts said, recalling the first time she heard Williams recount her travails.
Writing the book meant that Williams, who was unconscious through much of the early part of her ordeal, went back and learned details about the severity of her injuries and the identities of people who helped her. "She didn't know what was happening," Roberts explained. "Doing the book was painful and cathartic."
Roberts also pointed out that through her research Williams connected strongly with the legacies of her grandfather Hank Williams, who had back surgery and lived with pain, and her father, Hank Williams Jr., who survived serious injuries resulting from a fall off a mountain in 1975.
Upon learning of her daughters' accident, Hank Jr. flew by private jet to Memphis, arriving in time to see Hilary rolled into the hospital. Mother Becky received a phone call telling her that the girls were in critical condition, and she drove from Mer Rouge, Louisiana, to Memphis. "Her prayers kept us alive," Hilary said.
Amid the grim recounting, there was humor. Williams recalled that her sister asked emergency response personnel not to take scissors to her hard-to-find, long-legged jeans, and she resisted attempts to shave her blonde hair. Kid Rock identified himself as Bobby Ritchie at the hospital, but was admitted only when he pointed out that he was, indeed, Kid Rock. When he saw Hilary, her body outfitted with tubes and monitors, he observed, "You've got more stuff hooked up to you than I have in my studio."
Sometime during the first week, Hilary asked that her father sing a request for her, his song "Weatherman" from the 1981 album The Pressure Is On. The lyrics speak to the wish for a shift in fortune: "Mr. Weatherman / What is your forecast? / I need a major change / I can't stand no more rain."
Both parents were steadfast in their support of their convalescing daughters, Hilary said. In addition to keeping vigil in Memphis during the early aftermath of the accident, Hank Jr. sent "tons of flowers and balloons" and their mother, Becky, "was a rock" and "an angel."
After a month in Memphis, Hilary was life-flighted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she had more surgery and continued her rehabilitation. A broken plate in her leg was a setback, but she slowly made the progression "wheelchair, walker, crutches, cane."
During the interview, McCall asked Williams what it was like to have Hank Jr. as a father. He was Bocephus on stage, but Daddy when he was with Hilary and Holly. "He dresses different at home. He's not in the hat, the shades, the leather-fringed jacket and boots. He's L. L. Bean at home."
She also recalled having to read, to her third grade class, a newspaper story about one of her father's entertainer of the year awards. "I was really happy for him, but I was a super, super shy kid," she said.
In a clip from the museum exhibit, Hank Jr. said his accident strengthened his faith. "You have to rely on a supreme being, you have to rely on God and his blessings and realize that I was left here on the side of that mountain, for some reason, because I really shouldn't have made it out of that. And actually Hilary had massive injuries. Our faith probably got a lot stronger after the traumatic accidents we had."
Hilary agreed with her father. "There's a God," she told McCall, "and he's out there watching out for you."
Williams ended the program with a performance of her song "Sign of Life," accompanied by guitarist Kyle Jacobs and vocalist Ashley Monroe. Her proud dad, a late arrival, sat in the front row next to her mother as she sang: "Maybe pain is a sign of life / A little blessing for a little strife / And it's something we have to find / To give us meaning / To let us know we're alive / We're alive / We're alive ..."