Of all the songs entered into the country music canon for going on 100 years, few if any can give you a deeper chill when listening to it than the premonitions presented in the story of the Hank Williams song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” The circumstances surrounding its release and the ultimate demise of Hank Williams himself are beyond eerie, and it has allowed this song to remain a compelling work of not just country music, but of American letters for going on a century.
Like so many of the songs of Hank Williams, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was written by Hank Williams himself, with a little help from his song publisher and mentor Fred Rose. The song was recorded on June 13th, 1952 at the Castle Studios in Nashville, and the recording of the song also held some significance. Long time Drifting Cowboys members Don Helms (steel guitar) and Jerry Rivers (fiddle) backed Hank up of course, but joining them in the studio was also Chet Atkins.
The recording of “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was like the old guard of country music meeting the new, as Chet Atkins would go on to be one of the most important producers in country music for the next 25 years in the aftermath of Hank’s passing. As Chet Atkins would recall later, “We recorded ‘I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive’ and after each take, [Hank had to] sit down in a chair. I remember thinking, ‘Hoss, you’re not jivin’,’ because he was so weak that all he could do was just sing a few lines, and then just fall in the chair.”
The truth is, Hank Williams at the time was in the twilight of his life, whether he knew it or not. Having suffered chronic back pain throughout adulthood that aided his alcoholism, by late 1952, Hank had turned thin, frail, incontinent, and had lost most of his hair, even though he was only 29 years old. The regular morphine injections he received for his back pain didn’t help, and a pseudo medical product called Hadacol who even sponsored his tours probably hurt Hank’s health more than anything, while the snake oil’s 12% alcohol content fed Hank’s demons.
Divorced from Audrey Williams, detached from his son Randall Hank Jr., Hank was in bad health and worse spirits. In June of 1952, Hank very much was writing what he was living. The day after he divorced Audrey, he recorded “You Win Again” and “I Won’t Be Home No More.” On August 11th, 1952, he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry for drunkenness. Things were going from bad to worse for Hank.
When “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was officially released as a single on November 21st, 1952, nobody knew it would officially be the last single Hank released while living. When he died in the back of his Cadillac on New Years Day 1953, it was the Hank Williams song that was in strong rotation on the radio. It would posthumously hit #1.
One of the interesting things about the song that people overlook due to the ominous premonitions it contained was just how humorous it was. In many respects, the song was penned to take lighthearted notions to a heavy subject.
“A distant uncle passed away and left me quite a batch…
And I was living high until that fatal day a lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched.”
“These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time are full of holes and nails…
And brother if I stepped on a worn out dime I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.”
These lines illustrate the quintessential Hank Williams wit and rhyme. They are the kind of writing that went on to have Hank labeled the Hillbilly Shakespeare. But it wasn’t just the poetry, it was the real life implications of “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” that made the song so haunting.
Hank’s entire life was almost like a ghost story. That’s why other songs involving Hank, like “The Ride” written by J. B. Detterline and Gary Gentry, and performed by David Allan Coe give country music fans chills every time they hear it. “The Ride” was inspired by a (supposedly) real-like Hank Williams ghost story as well. It was Hank’s “Last Ride” as he traveled to play a New Year’s show in Ohio that has inspired multiple films.
“I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” has also inspired it’s own artistic offshoots. Along with being covered scores of times, Steve Earle took inspiration from the song, and published his first novel called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive in 2011 about a doctor who is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. Earle also released an album of the same name to coincide with the novel.
The way Hank’s life mirrored his music is what has made his legacy so everlasting in not just country music, but in the lore of American culture for going on 70 years. There may not be a more chilling example of this than the song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”