It’s August 8th, 1975, and the career of an important country music star carrying one of the most famous names in American music is at a crossroads. Ever since the age of eight, virtually all Hank Williams Jr. has ever known is wearing tailored suits and short hair, and singing his father’s songs as closely as possible to the original version. Hank Williams died when Hank Jr. was only four-years-old, and his mother Audrey immediately put the younger Hank on the path to filling the void his famous father left behind, including playing Hank songs while backed up by his father’s famous Drifting Cowboy band for as many as 200 nights per year.
By the time Hank Jr. was 14-years-old, he began touring regularly with Audrey’s “Caravan of Stars.” By the time he was 17, he was married for the first time. And by 1966 the younger Hank had signed a recording contract with MGM. Of course they were expecting to get the new version of the old Hank, and that’s what they received. But buried deep inside Hank Williams Jr. was the yearning to break away from his mother’s control, find his own voice, and become a star through his own efforts.
And break away he did. Beyond possessing a deep, unique voice all his own, Hank Jr. became a skilled multi-instrumentalist, able to play his own guitar solos and fiddle breaks when called upon. Hank Jr. moved from Nashville to his father’s home state of Alabama. He severed ties with his mother, and tried to kick some bad habits that feeling like a Hank Williams impersonator had afforded him over his early career.
In Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. moved forward, and from February through July of 1975, he recorded the album Hank Williams Jr., and Friends for MGM that included many of his own self-penned compositions, and collaborations with Southern rock icons Charlie Daniels and Toy Caldwell. It was the moment Hank Jr. broke free from the preconceptions of who he should be as a musician, and began to forge his own path.
But the reception he would receive, and the road Hank Williams Jr. would have to take to come out on top would not be rosy. Criticized for turning his back on his name, his family’s roots, and the traditional sound of country, Hank all of a sudden became a polarizing figure where before he was revered by the country establishment. And that is only where his troubles began.
Looking to clear his mind and hopefully help find the inner voice he needed to persevere on his new career path, Hank Jr. took a retreat to Montana before a big tour was scheduled to commence. Hank went climbing on a mountain called Ajax Peak that straddles the border of Montana and Idaho, accompanied by a rancher named Dick Willey from nearby Wisdom, Montana. The two men were searching for goats at about 2 P.M. on that Saturday afternoon at about a 9,000-foot elevation when Hank Jr. slipped on a snow field covering the side of the mountain, and fell 500 feet. During the fall, Hank Jr.’s head impacted on several rocks jutting out from the snow field, and then he landed face first on a boulder.
When help arrived, they found the front of Hank Jr.’s head was split and fractured from his chin to his hairline. As one observer put it, it was like he had been struck dead center in the face with an ax. Hank eventually lost all of his teeth, his gums were virtually gone, his right eye was hanging out of its socket, and parts of his brain were exposed through his skull. “My head was the size of a watermelon,” Hank recalls.
Since the location of Hank’s fall was so remote, it took many hours to rescue him as he laid on the side of the mountain, clinging to life. Dick Willey hiked for help and found a district forest ranger named Ed Brown, who radioed for a helicopter to be brought in to attempt a rescue. But since the location Hank Jr. was in was in such remote country, six men had to hike to Hank Jr.’s location, and carry him a 1/4 mile to where the helicopter could land. Six hours after the initial fall occurred, Hank Jr. finally arrived at the Missoula Community Hospital to receive treatment.
Over the next two years, Hank Williams Jr. would have nine reconstructive surgeries on his face and head. Doctors told him initially he would never sing again, and because of his previous issues with drugs, addiction became a serious issue during Hank’s recovery. It took Hank Jr. an additional two years to fully regain his professional career, and emerge as a full-time performer once again, though it was without the chiseled, boyish face he was known by before. Because of the injuries, Hank Jr. wore a cowboy hat, beard, and dark glasses from then on, and still does today.
After the accident and recovery, Hank Williams Jr. would become one of the most successful country music artists in history by mixing elements of traditional country with Southern rock, just as he’d planned to before the accident. The perseverance he learned in his recovery only steeled his resolve to make a name for himself beyond the shadow of his famous father. The criticism came, but so did the accolades, and by the 80’s Hank Jr. was so successful, the industry could no longer ignore his impact. Hank Williams Jr. eventually won two CMA Entertainer of the Year distinctions, and three ACM Entertainer of the Year distinctions consecutively in the late 80’s, ushering in the “young country” movement and the “Class of ’89.”
Tragic accidents have marked the timeline of country music like little else. From the loss of Patsy Cline in a plane crash, to auto accidents taking the lives of Ira Louvin and Johnny Horton and others, to the deaths of Keith Whitely and Hank Williams too soon. Hank Jr.’s harrowing experience and eventual recovery goes right up there as one of the defining moments in country history.
Hank Jr.’s fall on Ajax Peak (he regularly refers to it as Ajax Mountain) was mentioned in his song “All in Alabama,” and “Living Proof” mentions the turmoil Hank was going through right before the fall.