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Merry Widow Of Country Legends

September 20, 1987|JOHN PRIME | Prime is a free-lance writer based in Shreveport.

SHREVEPORT, La. — 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."

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