Hilary Williams Details Her Brush With Death in ‘Sign of Life’
On a March day in 2006, sisters Hilary and Holly Williams, the daughters of Hank Williams Jr., were driving in a Toyota truck from Nashville to Mer Rouge, Louisiana, to attend their grandfather’s funeral. However, the sisters came face to face with their own mortality when in Mississippi, their truck skidded on the road and flipped over several times before landing a near a field
Both sisters were hurt, but the injuries to Hilary, who drove the truck, were the most serious: broken legs, pelvis, collarbone, ribs, bruised lungs and a ruptured colon. Hilary briefly lost consciousness and had visions of seeing her late grandparents, Hank and Audrey Williams, along with Johnny and June Carter Cash.
The sisters were transported by helicopter to a hospital in Memphis, where Hilary would begin the first of what would eventually be 23 surgeries. At one point, she had a pulmonary edema that was life-threatening and her skin had to be grafted from her buttocks to cover a hole in her leg. Eventually Hilary pulled through and later returned home to begin the difficult rehabilitation process to get her to walk.
Today, Hilary is up and about despite still feeling some pains since the accident four years ago. She recounts what happened to her during that period in the new memoir, ‘Sign of Life,’ co-written with M.B. Roberts. In addition to the accident and recovery, ‘Sign of Life’ (the book’s title was from a remark by her doctor that “pain is a sign of life”), addresses her growing up in one of country music’s most legendary families.
Like her father and sister Holly, Hilary is continuing the Williams family line as a singer, as she’s currently working on songs for a new album. She spoke to The Boot to about the horrifying moments leading up to and right after the accident, her recovery, and life in the iconic Williams family.
When and why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?
About two years ago, I’d just had so many people come up to me and ask what happened to me, and I told them the story. They’re like, “Oh my gosh! Your story is just so amazing. You need to write a book.” I kept hearing over and over, so I just thought I would do it and try to inspire and help other people.
Was it difficult to relive what happened to you from the accident to the recovery process?
It was difficult, but it was good to get it out. I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know because I was knocked down on drugs and everything that happened. But when I had to edit it, that was really hard, re-reading everything. It was good to get through it.
How did the accident happen?
I think I was changing my iPod, and I just looked down for a second. Highway 61 was a bad highway and there were ruts on the road and real thick gravel on either side. It just kind of shifted us on the gravel, like you were riding a wave or something. Then once we hit the gravel at 60 miles per hour, [I] lost control and I over-compensated the wheel and the car was going out of control. Then we flipped in the field four times and then landed on our side.
What do you remember at the time of impact?
It just felt like a bad roller coaster ride. Then when we landed, I was going in and out [of consciousness] and the truck driver stopped and he just kept telling me, “Honey, you got to stay awake. You guys stay awake.” He was rubbing my hand, and the seat belt was cutting off my oxygen and I couldn’t breathe very well. I just yelled, “You’ll have to turn this truck over, I can’t breathe!” Then some more people showed up to help, and they pushed the truck on its side … all four wheels. I was just praying to God to help and save us: “I’m just so young and I’m not ready to go yet, I still want to go to Europe.” There were things that I wanted to check off my bucket list before I left this Earth.
You were even having visions?
Well, when I died, yeah. I saw my grandparents. I saw my childhood flash before my eyes, like different pictures of my childhood, it was crazy.
Your accident paralleled your father’s life-and-death situation when he fell off Ajax Mountain in Montana in 1975.
I totally believed in stuff getting passed down through the family, but it was great to have my dad around. He went through this horrible thing and made it out. He was just so encouraging. [He said], “You’re going to get better and stronger.” He was like, “You beat me in [the number of surgeries].” It was crazy.
You eventually came home bedridden and had to basically learn how to walk again … something a lot of us take for granted.
It was wild because you would think your body knows how to walk, but you have to retrain your muscles. It was painful, but I was determined to walk again and get through it. I was bedridden and in a wheelchair for two-and-a-half years. I had to re-learn how to walk three different times, but the first time I took a step was September 11, [ 2006]. That was six months after the accident. It was the walker, then crutches and then I graduated to a cane.
How did you cope through all those obstacles, including the surgeries and the recovery process?
In the very beginning, I didn’t really realize how bad my injuries were. I kind of tuned everything out. I was just going through the motions. I had to rely on God at the time and knew He was in control. I have great family and friends giving me a lot of support, and I try to keep a smile on my face. Definitely, I have my dark days, but I try to stay positive and think towards the future.
So how are you feeling right now?
My femur is still broken, but it’s pretty much healed. I still have pains every day. I’m not using my cane much anymore. And I’ve got a trainer who’s really helping me in building my muscles back.
You also write about your family heritage in the book. One thing that was surprising was that you never really listened to the music of your grandfather, Hank Williams, until later in your life.
I just thought his music was boring when I was younger. [laughs] But once you get older, you appreciate things more. Now I listen to his lyrics, and they’re so simple but yet amazing at the same time.
Instead, you were into the New Kids on the Block.
Yes. [laughs] We were massive fans of theirs.
Despite the fact you’re part of a legendary musical family, you and Holly pretty much had conventional childhoods. How were you able to stay grounded?
My mom’s really grounded and a sweet, fair lady. She would take us to church. Everyone thinks my our dad was at our house and we had these big, wild parties. But he kept his show life and his being a dad as two separate things. And that’s how he wanted it. He’s like, “I’m Bocephus on the stage, but I’m Daddy to y’all.” My mom and dad both kept Holly and me very grounded.
And even though your father had a hectic performance schedule, he still made time for you and Holly after your parents’ divorce?
Yeah. [laughs] In the ’80s, he was doing 300 shows a year. We see him a lot more now. When we were kids, we saw him less. But he would always fly us somewhere to see him, or send a car to get us, to make sure we’d spend time together.
When did you first think about pursuing music as a career?
Kind of late, in my mid-20s. I always loved to sing … and people tell me I have perfect pitch. It just makes me happy when I sing. I’m not trying to copy my dad or my grandfather. My sister’s the same way. We just want to do our own thing.
How did your father react when you told him you wanted to pursue music full time?
He was fine. He’s like, “You have a great voice and you can do it.” He doesn’t really tell us much. He just wants us to find our own path and our own way.
You wrote a song called ‘Sign of Life,’ which was inspired by the accident. How long after it happened did you write it?
I wrote it five months after the accident. I was still in a hospital bed at my mom’s house and a girlfriend of mine was like, “You need to be writing.” I was still whacked out on painkillers but her roommate at the time, Blu Sanders, came over and that song just spilled out. We wrote it within 30 minutes.
Has the accident informed the way you approach songwriting now?
Yeah, you have a lot more deeper things to write about. It’s been a good thing.
What do you hope people come away with after reading the book?
To never give up, have faith and hope, and try to be inspired.