On Dec. 19, 1952, Warren Stark, the proprietor of the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas, paced the floor of his nightclub. The biggest name in country music was scheduled to appear that night. But given Hank Williams’ reputation for showing up dead drunk to his shows, Stark was understandably tense. Stark had personally driven Hank from Dallas to Austin to make sure the singer showed up at all.
The Skyline Club, which was located at 11306 North Lamar Blvd., opened in 1946. The historic venue hosted Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow and Bob Wills, among many others. Elvis Presley even played the club in 1955.
But the Dec. 19 show at the Skyline was one for the record books. Over 800 people crowded into the venue to watch Williams deliver a fiery three-hour set. A child prodigy by the name of Doug Sahm, who later rose to fame for his “Tex-Mex” music and work in the Sir Douglas Quintet, joined Hank onstage. Williams, while not completely sober, was at his best. But the crowd had no idea they were witnessing the icon’s final show.
Just days later, Williams was riding in the back of a baby-blue Cadillac driven by college freshman Charles Carr. He was on his way to a show in Canton, Ohio but he never made it. Somewhere along the dark, winding Appalachian roads between Tennessee and Virginia, Hank Williams died of heart failure. Williams was pronounced dead on Jan. 1, 1953. He was 29 years old.
Music historians and Hank lovers of all ages obsess about that fateful night, fixating on everything from what he was wearing (a blue overcoat, a white fedora and white cowboy boots, according to Carr) to whether he was really found with a pint of vodka and an unfinished song at the time of his death. The Skyline Club was forever embedded in country music lore — one piece in the tragic story of Luke the Drifter.
But the club turns up in another story of country music fatality: the death of rockabilly honky-tonker Johnny Horton. And the eerie similarities between Horton and Williams’ fates makes the Skyline even more foreboding.
Hank and Johnny
At the time of his death, Williams was married to aspiring singer Billie Jean Jones. They met at a party in Nashville in 1951. Though Billie Jean was dating country singer Faron Young at the time, she soon turned her attention to Williams. The couple had only been married two months at the time of Hank’s death.
During her time with Williams, Billie Jean met Johnny Horton on the set of Louisiana Hayride. Less than a year after Hank’s tragic end, Billie Jean and Horton married. The couple had two daughters together and raised a daughter from Billie Jean’s first marriage.
Horton’s career was on the fast track. He racked up a string of hits in the 1950s, such as “Honky Tonk Man” and “Battle of New Orleans”
But while Williams was making plans for a comeback at the time of his demise, Horton seemed to sense that his life would be cut short before he ever stepped foot onstage at the Skyline Club. He was plagued by premonitions that he wasn’t long for this world.
Horton had a bad feeling about the Skyline Club and even tried to cancel the show to no avail. He feared that he would be killed by a wild drunk in the crowd. While Horton was wrong about the exact cause of his death, his show at the Skyline Club proved to be his last. On Nov. 5, 1960, Horton was killed by a drunk driver in a car crash in Texas. Horton was on his way to a gig in Shreveport, La.
Both Williams and Horton played their final shows at the Skyline Club while they were married to the same woman. But it gets even creepier.
Country legend has it that Horton said goodbye to Billie Jean in the same spot Williams bid farewell to her at his last show at the Skyline Club. Was playing the Skyline Club a bad omen? Or was it just a strange coincidence?
The Skyline Club was revived in the 1970s when it became the Soap Creek Saloon. The Saloon became a hot spot for Austin’s Outlaw Country movement, with Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker taking the stage.
While the Skyline Club is long gone, the club’s original neon sign is located on the back patio of Hill’s Cafe in south Austin. If you’re ever in Austin, pay your respects to Hank and Johnny and the old Skyline Club where two country legends kicked out the footlights one final time.