In 1983, David Allan Coe released “The Ride.” The lead single from his album Castles In The Sand, “The Ride” became arguably Coe’s most successful song from his most successful album. There’s a mystical, spellbinding nature to the tune. Perhaps that’s because it was co-written by the ghost of Hank Williams.
At least that’s the story songwriter Gary Gentry sells (To state the obvious, not the same Gary Gentry who pitched in the Major Leagues).
For those who haven’t heard “The Ride,” take a moment and listen. The story details a hopeful singer hitchhiking from Montgomery, Ala. to Nashville. Along the way, a figure stops on the side of the road and offers the man a ride. But something felt different.
For starters, the Cadillac came out of the 1950s. The hopeful star notices the driver’s drunken, hollow eyes. As he gets in the car, “solid country gold” plays from the radio. And then he notices he’s white as a ghost.
In the chorus, the driver asks our hopeful hero, “Drifter, can you make folks cry when you play and sing? Have you paid your dues, can you moan the blues, can you bend them guitar strings?” Because if he’s wanting to make it big, he better know it’s a long, hard ride.
If you haven’t figured out the twist just yet, listen before reading on (so not to spoil it).
So yeah, it’s the ghost of Hank Williams driving the car. Gives you chills thinking about it, right? Well, Gary Gentry felt the same way after he penned it. But that’s because he also had some otherworldly help.
As Gentry tells it, the song started from a co-write earlier in the evening. He met a man named J.B. Detterline Jr. while filming a movie in town called Hank Williams Tribute — The Man And His Music. Seeing how big a Hank fan Gentry was, Detterline pressed him to write a song in Williams’ honor.
And since Detterline was a big Lefty Frizzell fan, the pair got together and wrote a tune called “Wherever Hank and Lefty Are, That’s Where I Want To Go.”
“At 10, he left and I said, ‘It’s not enough for Hank,'” Gentry says. “[Detterline] said, ‘What? It’s a great song!'” But something was amiss to Gentry.
So Gentry lit some candles and decided he wanted to summon the spirit of Hank Williams. Of course, by his own admission, Gentry did some drinking those days. “I lit candles in the living room, and I wanted Hank to show himself,” Gentry says. “I wanted to write a masterpiece about Hank. And I was mad, and I was drunk. Thank God I haven’t had a drink since 1984, but in those days, it was pretty wild.”
Gentry did all the things scary ghost movies tell us not to do, like antagonizing ghosts and yelling mean things. Gentry yelled to his empty apartment, “Hank! Why were you so big? Just because you died young? Show yourself!”
Then, Gentry peered down the long dark hallway to a ghostly sight: Hank Williams, shirtless, sitting on his couch. Gentry says the song just poured through him at 4 a.m. He called Detterline, even though Detterline told Gentry not to make a fuss since he had a pregnant, sleeping wife at home.
Gentry played Detterline the song, and he told him to hold on a second. He then woke his “do not disturb” wife to have her listen. “The Ride” was just that good. Gentry included Detterline as a co-writer on the song, though he absolutely didn’t have to. But Detterline did inspire him to write a tribute song in the first place, and the gesture goes to show just how far good relationships in town can take you.
Sometime later, Coe performed “The Ride” at the Grand Ole Opry. The storied organization famously shut out Williams for drunkenly missing his obligations not long before his death. And in the song, the ghostly Williams stops south of Nashville, letting the hitchhiker out but tearfully refusing to go any further. But before he goes, he says, “You can call me Hank.”
While Coe performed that last verse where the ghost reveals himself, the power and lights at the Opry shut off. Gentry heard about the moment. “And I think it was Phil Ball, one of the musicians [playing the Opry] that day, who said, ‘Hank don’t want to come back,'” Gentry says. “And I thought, ‘Wow.'”
Without a doubt, “The Ride” has an eerily special quality about it. And knowing the story behind it just makes it that much more unique. Several notable names went on to record their own versions, including Tim McGraw and Hank Williams Jr.
Perhaps songwriters nowadays should do a little more channeling of their heroes as well. You just never know what — or who —might come out.