MERRY WIDOW OF COUNTRY LEGENDS
Being the widow of two country music legends has been nothing if not eventful for Billie Jean Horton. But if her life with the legacies of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton were to be made into a country song, the title would probably be “Double Trouble.”
Since Williams’ untimely death on New Year’s Day 1953, Horton has spent quite a bit of time in court defending her status as his widow and establishing claims to copyrights and estates. One of the most visible instances was when she fought a massive legal battle in the early 1970s to stop distribution of the MGM film “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a cinematic version of Williams’ story starring George Hamilton. She won.
“The movie portrayed me as a harlot, but there they were in court, looking at my marriage certificate with mine and Hank’s signatures on it,” she said.
Now 54, the flamboyant singer and businesswoman is still going strong. She’s just come off another courtroom victory in which an Alabama judge ruled that a woman claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Hank Williams has no right to royalties or proceeds from his estate.
The suit put Horton on the same side of the court as Hank Williams Jr., Acuff-Rose Publishers and a number of other music business concerns, all of whom have been her opponents in past court battles.
She hasn’t missed the irony.
“All these guys--who are now on my side, you understand--I’ve whipped ‘em all before,” she said in a recent interview at her Shreveport home, a comfortable, ranch-style structure she and Horton built in 1959, shortly after the success of his “Battle of New Orleans.”
That legal education has turned the once-naive country girl into a shrewd tactician. “She can tell you more about interrogatories and lawsuits than anyone I know,” said Merle Kilgore, vice president of Hank Williams Jr. Enterprises. “I’m glad we’re on the same side.”
As she sits in her office surrounded by reams of paper and boxes containing papers she and her attorneys have chased through courthouses across the nation, she speaks with a hint of understatement. She can afford it: In more than 30 years of legal wrangling, she has yet to lose a major lawsuit. The closest she came was a draw with an airline over the loss of some jewelry.
Billie Jean Jones met Hank Williams in Nashville in the winter of 1951. She was Faron Young’s date, but something clicked between Williams and the 19-year-old from Bossier City, La. with the hourglass figure and flame-red hair.
Williams died just two months after they were married. Actually, they “married” three times--first in a private ceremony in northern Louisiana and then in two huge public weddings at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans witnessed by 28,000 paying “guests.”
Billie Jean met Johnny Horton during her time with Williams.
“Horton was working the Tennessee Ernie Ford show in California and was just guesting at the (Louisiana) Hayride,” she said.
“Hank knew Johnny better than I did. Hank was actually a fan of Johnny’s and used to listen to every record Johnny would come out with. He would stop the car if we were riding along and Johnny came on the radio.
“I remember the last record Hank heard him sing--'The Child’s Side of Life,’ which was a real dog, too. Hank said, ‘Wait a minute, baby, let’s hear this kid.’ After it was over, he turned it off and he said, ‘No son, this one ain’t gonna make it!’ But he told me that one day Johnny would be one of the biggest stars in the business.”
After Hank’s death, Billie Jean started performing as Mrs. Hank Williams. She gave up show business a year later when she married Horton in September, 1953.
“Horton was a beautiful person,” she recalled. “We hunted and fished together and after we married, I quit the road. I just wanted a home and a family.”
She got that. She and Horton had two daughters, Melody and Yanina. Horton also became a good father for Jeri Lynn, Billie Jean’s daughter from her first marriage.
Horton’s career took off in the late ‘50s with such songs as “Honky Tonk Man,” “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismark.” His “North to Alaska” was the theme of a John Wayne movie. Horton died in a car crash on a Texas highway in November, 1960.
Billie Jean is disappointed that Johnny Horton was never named to the Country Music Hall of Fame. “He was probably the first ‘outlaw’ there ever was,” she said. “He refused to move to Nashville and he had only one really close friend, Johnny Cash, and they hunted and fished down here.
“He didn’t want to be around anything but music, all the time, and he didn’t even really like music. He was venturing into movies at the time he died, and I think he was aiming at doing nothing but recording and writing. He didn’t want to tour anymore. He had seen too much of booze and pills. Johnny didn’t drink or smoke and--pills? He didn’t even know such things existed until after he got up in the big leagues and saw a lot of guys popping pills.”
In 1960, not quite 30, Billie Jean was a widow for the second time. Despite Horton’s success, his estate amounted to little, and it was slow in coming. There were also tax bills due, but Billie Jean managed to pull through with help from Cash.
After Horton’s death, Billie Jean took to the road again, recording some songs of her own and shepherding Horton’s royalties and song catalogue. She also began her long legal battle to win her share of the Hank Williams estate.
That renewed the animosity between Billie Jean and Audrey Williams, Hank’s first wife and mother of Hank Williams Jr. It also resurrected the ghost of another of her foes, Lilly Stone, Hank’s mother. Billie Jean had differences with Mrs. Stone during her time with Hank. That animosity continued beyond Hank’s death.
Even as Hank’s body lay in state in the living room of Mrs. Stone’s home, she and Billie Jean fought in the bathroom. Billie Jean was shorter and half the weight of her opponent. “I had to get up on the commode to slap her,” she said.
The recently concluded “illegitimate daughter” case was not the first time Horton was faced with someone claiming to be one of her husbands’ heirs. In 1981 she discovered that a young man in Washington state was performing in clubs, claiming to be the son of Johnny Horton.
She flew to Spokane and confronted the impostor, but discovered to her chagrin that many people were more sympathetic to him than to her.
“It turned out he had a prison record and was on parole at the time,” Horton said, adding that he later returned to prison but still maintains a desultory correspondence with her. “He calls me collect and calls me ‘Mom,’ ” she says. “Can you believe that?”
Billie Jean married once after Horton’s death, to Shreveport insurance executive Kent Berlin in 1968. But within a week of the marriage, the problems surrounding “Your Cheatin’ Heart” got in the way.
“I had to be on the road with the lawyers all the time, and that didn’t work out,” she said. The marriage ended in divorce, but she said she and Berlin are still “great friends.”
Though her busy schedule of courtroom appointments, lawyer meetings and the tracking of songs she controls may be too much for a marriage, Horton makes time to enjoy her family.
Her two daughters by Johnny Horton live in Shreveport and her two young grandchildren are frequent visitors. And as if that all is not enough, she is also considering writing her autobiography. She has also been consulting with producers planning a film biography of Hank Williams.
After several marriages, myriad personal tragedies and more than three decades of forced legal education, Billie Jean Horton lives by a simple motto.
“Swing with whatever happens,” she said. “Then you don’t have time to get dull.”