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The Merry Widow of Country Music

By Bill Keith -- September 27, 2012


Billie Jean Horton has zoomed through life like a shooting star with her share of detours along the way. She loved and lost two of country music's greatest legends -- Hank Williams and Johnny Horton.

I first met her in 1976 when my city editor at the Shreveport Times assigned me to do a feature on Billie Jean who lived out on Shreve Island in the city. He told me other reporters had tried to interview her but she ran them off and said she could turn the air blue with profanity. Hence, I was somewhat apprehensive when I called and asked for the interview. She agreed and invited me to her fashionable home.

Prior to the interview, I tried to learn as much as possible about her. I knew she was married to Hank Williams, who some believe was the greatest country singer of all time. He performed at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, performances second only to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

After they had been married only two months, Hank died of an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. He as 29.

I learned she was married to Johnny Horton who died in a tragic car wreck when he was 35.

When I arrived at her home, she welcomed me and offered me some tea. I noticed she was drinking a lot of tea and, when she stepped out of the room, I smelled her cup and noticed it was laced with bourbon.

She was petite and pretty with dark red hair and wrapped up like a Christmas package. Although she could rant and rave about MGM's movie Your Cheatin' Heart that, she said, portrayed her as a harlot, or how Roy Acuff of Acuff-Rose Music Inc. believed the company owned Hank's royalties, she also had a warm place in her heart for him, After years of wrangling in court, she won a settlement of some $3 million.

She shared some very personal feelings about her husband. She said he often would help other country singers who were down on the luck. "He would take them to Jordan and Booth's men's store in downtown Shreveport and buy them new suits and boots and a hat."

However, she said her relationship to Hank's mother Jessie Lillybell was turbulent. "When we got into a fight, I was so short, I had to stand up on the toilet seat to slap her."

She married Johnny Horton on Sept. 26, 1953, nine months after Hank died.

She said Hank loved Johnny Horton's music and told her that one day he would become a great country music star.

Johnny was famous for his recordings of "North to Alaska," "The Battle of New Orleans," "Sink the Bismarck" and a host of others.

She said that unlike Hank, Johnny was quite mystical. "He had this friend Bernard down at the post office who was a real spooky guy," she said. "Johnny would invite him out to the house and they would have séances. I kicked them out of the house and Johnny built a one-room building in the back yard where they did all that stuff."

She also said that Johnny had a premonition he was going to die. And, on Nov.5, 1960, he died in a car wreck near Milano, Texas, after a performance at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas. While crossing a bridge, a drunk driver in a large truck crashed in to his Cadillac. Tillman Franks, his manager, suffered head injuries but survived.

Tillman's brother Billie Franks, a Shreveport pastor, preached the funeral and Johnny Cash flew in from Nashville for the service and read a passage of Scripture.

Now Billie Jean was a widow again and only 28 years old.

She really loved Horton and recalled they often "hunted and fished together.

They also had two daughters -- Melody and Yanina -- and said Johnny was quite proud of them and loved them dearly.

I wrote the story on Billie Jean, the merry widow, for the Sunday newspaper. The Associated Press picked it up, put it on their A-wire, and sent it all across America. Billie Jean called me on Monday and said he had heard from friends in 13 states who had read and enjoyed the story. Several years later, I received a phone call about 3 a.m. from Billie Jean in Hawaii. "Bill, somebody stole all my jewelry, cost me $350,000."

"Billie Jean, why did you take your jewelry to Hawaii?" I asked.

"Just wanted to have it with me."

She later explained a thief rifled her suitcase on the way from the airport to the hotel. But the jewelry was insured and she recovered all her money.

I lost contact with Billie Jean and haven't heard from her in years. I learned she and her daughters were into martial arts and that she won most all of her lawsuits for the rights to her two husbands' music and became a very wealthy woman.

I tried to contact her for an update for this article but was unable to locate her. Today she is 80 years old and living in semi-seclusion.

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