A Real Hank Williams Ghost Story Inspired David Allan Coe’s ‘The Ride’

There’s just about nothing that will give you deeper chills in country music than the delivery of the final verse in the song “The Ride” written by Gary Gentry, J. B. Detterline Jr., and performed by David Allan Coe. Even after you’ve listened to the song scores of times, if it’s been a little while and you pipe it up again, here come the goosbumps, and the hair standing up on the back of your neck as the aspiring country performer hears the driver proclaim, “The whole world called me Hank.”

It’s almost like seeing a ghost, because you can almost feel the presence of Hank Williams in the song. And that may not be by accident, or coincidence.

In 1982, songwriter Gary Gentry had been involved in a film called Hank Williams Tribute — The Man and His Music that was recorded at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville where Hank Williams held court many times before being unceremoniously removed from the Opry for excessive drinking. Some even think that the ghost of Hank Williams still haunts the Ryman itself.

Numerous sightings of Hank’s ghost have been reported at the Ryman over the years, including an employee who believed they saw him materialize in a “white mist.” When the 135-year-old building was being renovated in the 90’s before its reopening, a construction worker also swore he saw Hank. Another individual claimed they saw Hank’s ghost in the alley between The Ryman and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

One of the most high profile stories of Hank’s presence at the Ryman happened one evening when “Whispering” Bill Anderson was backstage playing his guitar, getting ready to go on stage for the Saturday night Opry. According to Bill, shortly after he started strumming a song on his guitar that was a favorite of Hank’s, everything in the building went out, including the lights, the sound equipment, and even the emergency exit lights supposedly on a backup system. No explanation was ever found for the incident, and Anderson described the experience as “eerie.” “Whispering” Bill believes it was related to him performing that song.

But none of these stories are what inspired “The Ride.” According to songwriter Gary Gentry, he saw the ghost of Hank Williams for himself.

While working on that Hank Williams tribute film in 1982, “The Ride” co-writer J. B. Detterline told Gary Gentry they should write a tribute song to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Apparently J.B. Detterline was a big Lefty Frizzell fan, while Gary Gentry was more of a Hank Williams fan. So that evening the two got together and wrote a tribute song to the two country legends called “Wherever Hank and Lefty Are, That’s Where I Want to Go.”

The two writers then parted ways at about 10:00 p.m. in the evening. But Gary Gentry wasn’t satisfied. He felt like the song the two co-wrote just didn’t do enough to show proper tribute to Hank Williams. Gentry was living at the Country Place Apartments at the time, and drinking a lot and “doing other stuff” according to the songwriter. He lit some candles, and performed a sort of redneck seance, trying to conjure the spirit of Hank Williams.

“I wanted to write a masterpiece about Hank,” Gary recalled in 2015. “And I was mad, and I was drunk. So I said, ‘Hank! Why were you so big? Just because you died young? Show yourself! Help me write this song.”

Apparently after the evocation, none other than Hank Williams appeared without a shirt on, sitting on Gary Gentry’s couch. “And I said, ‘Hank, we’re gonna take a ride. I wanna write about you. I think you’re the greatest songwriter and entertainer that ever lived.’ Thus, ‘The Ride,’ at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Gary Gentry then called J.B. Detterline, who was asleep (and whose wife was pregnant), and they completed the song. David Allan Coe eventually recorded it, and it was released as a single on February 28th, 1983.

When being interviewed by Billboard in 1983 about “The Ride,” Gary Gentry told the magazine, “There’s a mysterious magic connected with this song that spells cold chills, leading me to believe that it was meant to be and that David Allan Coe was meant to record it.” Though Gentry doesn’t mention seeing Hank’s ghost in the Billboard article, he does mention that when writing the song, he opened up the Hank Williams biography to check the date of his death, and opened the book to the exact page where it was written.

But that’s not all. Shortly after David Allan Coe released “The Ride,” Gary Gentry performed the song at the Grand Ole Opry House for a television show. Right when he got to “Hank” in the big payoff line, the lights and electricity at not just the Opry House, but the entire Opryland complex went completely out, similar the the experience Bill Anderson had at the Ryman Auditorium. Numerous news outlets reported on the incident at the time.

Did Gary Gentry really co-write “The Ride” with the ghost of Hank Williams? Did Hank really make the lights go out at The Ryman and the Opry House when his name and memory were being evoked? Conventional wisdom would tell us “no.” But if you’ve ever felt those chills when listening to “The Ride,” you know there’s something going on, and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s of this world.

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The story of “The Ride” takes place on U.S. Route 31, which roughly parallels Interstate 65. It hit #4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, making it Coe’s biggest hit up to that point (eclipsed by “Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile” in 1984).

This story has been updated.

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