The year 1953 should have been one of hope and promise for singer-songwriter Hank Williams, one of America’s first country music superstars, known for his songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” In fact, he was on his way to perform at a concert Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Day of that year when he died in the backseat of his 1952 powder blue Cadillac at the age of 29. While it’s been reported that the cause was a heart attack, the Los Angeles Times also says it may have been from “complications brought on by alcohol and drug addiction.”
Five days later, a baby girl was born in Montgomery, Alabama. The child was passed from guardian to guardian before she was adopted at the age of three by Wayne and Louis Deupree in Mobile, Alabama, and became Cathy Deupree.
But it wasn’t until decades later that she set off on a long and complicated journey to figure out that she was the daughter of the famous Hank Williams.
His daughter lived with four families in four years
The young Deupree was shuffled around often — living with Williams' mother Lillian Stone until she died and then ultimately being put into the system for adoption since Williams' sister Irene Smith, who was the next in line, wouldn’t take care of her.
"I had four families before I was four, was orphaned three times and had six name changes," Deupree — who now goes by Jett Williams — said in a 2002 speech at the Library of Congress. "My life was repeatedly changed with the stroke of a pen, be it by an attorney, social worker, judge, family member or the courts."
Jett was 21 when she realized Williams could be her biological father
While Jett was a college junior at the University of Alabama in Montgomery majoring in recreation therapy, her adoptive parents came to visit and gave the then 21-year-old $2,000 that had been held for her when she turned 21 from Stone.
And that was her first “crumb” that she could possibly be Williams' daughter.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, there’s no proof,” Jett remembers her adopted mother telling her.
But that wasn’t good enough for Jett. She became “obsessed” with finding out the true identity of her father.
Jett learned that Williams planned to take full custody of her
Jett set off on a huge treasure hunt to discover the truth about her own past, digging into all sorts of legal and adoption records — as well as lost family connections. Eventually, she got in touch with an uncle and Williams' cousin, Marie Harvell.
She learned that her birth mother was a secretary in Nashville who became pregnant with Williams' baby just months before he married another woman, Billie Jean Eschliman. But her father was committed to make sure the unborn baby was taken care of — pledging to pay the medical bills and giving Jett a one-way ticket to California, with the promise that after two years, he would take custody of the child.
"My daddy loved me enough to do something just for me," she said in 2002. "He entered into a pre-birth custody agreement that gave him full custody and responsibility for me... My father never intended for me to be adopted."
She entered a legal battle to prove Williams was indeed her birth father
But clearly Williams' tragic death got in the way of that plan. As did other family members, like Hank Williams, Jr., who didn’t acknowledge his half-sister for years — in fact, they were in a legal battle for nine years.
Court battles and family rivalries challenged whether Jett truly was in Williams' lineage, as she kept hitting "one brick wall after another," adding that “my case was argued in probate court, circuit court, the state supreme court, the federal courts in New York, the appellate court and no less than five times in the U.S. Supreme Court."
Eventually, she met a lawyer named Keith Adkinson who found documentation of the arrangement between Williams and Jett’s mom (though how he came to obtain it has never been revealed). And in 1985, the Alabama State Court determined legally that she was indeed the singer’s daughter. (And in 1986, she married Adkinson.)
Jett sings to help stay connected to Williams
During Jett’s quest to bond with her late dad, she also started to sing, making her professional debut in 1989 before performing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1993.
And to truly step into her own dad’s footsteps, she reached out to two of her dad’s old sidemen, Jerry Rivers and Don Helms, to have them play with her.
With all the constant reminders, Jett is reminded of what she doesn’t have. “I’m never going to have memories of Christmas with my father or of sitting in his lap, but I still feel I know him,” she says.
Jett believes Williams is her 'guardian angel'
Some time in her 30s, Jett gave herself the name Jett Williams — a combination of her birth mother Frances “Bobbie” Jett and her father’s names. And in 1990, she published an autobiography Ain’t Nothin’ as Sweet as My Baby: The Story of Hank Williams’ Lost Daughter and released the 1995 album That Reminds Me of Hank.
After all, it’s music that has kept their relationship alive. “When I hear my dad sing, to me it sounds like his life depends on it. I mean, you stop and catch your breath, and you feel as if he's singing that song just to you,” Jett told NPR in 2008.
“I believe that I’ve had a guardian angel. I really, really do,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. And I’ve implied that I think my father is my guardian angel — and that he’s looking down.”