Hank Williams and Billie Jean Say I Do

Hank Williams married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, on Oct. 18, 1952, in Minden, La. It was the second marriage for both, though it wouldn’t be the only ceremony. The next day Williams was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, where the vows were exchanged at each of two performances. Billy Jean wore a bridal gown for each and she and Hank took a slice from a towering wedding cake. For 50 cents, those in the sold-out audiences of 14,000 could buy a program of the event.

Though the Williams said, “I do” three times, a judge would eventually say, “No, you don’t.” Answering a lawsuit from Williams’ first wife, Audrey Sheppard, after Williams’ death, the court would rule that the wedding was invalid since Eschimar’s divorce from her first marriage hadn’t become finalized by the time of her weddings to Williams. (Audrey Sheppard couldn’t be too smug, though, because her wedding to Williams occurred before her first divorce was finalized.) Thus was the life of Hank Williams, a man whose heart suffered both figuratively and actually. Two and half months later, Jan. 1, 1953, Williams died of a heart malady, triggered by a life of heavy drinking and hard living.

While he lived for only 29 years, Hank Williams provides evidence that there was a time when giants walked the earth. For a man who spent too many of his few years aching and crawling, his repertoire of songs includes brilliant American classics that defined country music. Louisiana benefitted from his brief stay, not only from hosting his final nuptials here, but also from his appearances on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride radio broadcasts, and most of all, from the song “Jambalaya,” which he co-wrote and made globally famous. I maintain that crawfish pie would be an extinct dish were it not for that song, and jambalaya would be just another way to serve rice. Put them together though, and son of a gun we can have big fun on the bayou.

Our cover story is about the photos of photographer John Kuhlman, whose mission was photographing musicians. Most of his images are of jazz performers, but he was there for Williams’ ceremonies, too. Many of these photographs have been seldom seen. We are proud to do our part to correct that. There is genius to be discovered both in front of and behind the lens.

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