Billie Jean Horton has always been on the fringes of greatness. She is linked by marriage to more than one legendary musician, but it’s easy to forget that she herself has had a diverse musical career too.
And without her efforts on the behalf of her two famous husbands, who is to say what would have become of their respective legacies.
Billie Jean Horton – Early Life
Billie Jean Horton was born in Louisiana in the summer of 1933. Not much information is available about her early years, but one thing we know for sure is that she married young, to a fellow named Harrison Eshleman. This union ended in a speedy divorce, however.
Even from her earliest days, Billie Jean had a profound interest and affection for country music. Once her marriage to Eshleman was over she began dating singer Faron Young.
Young’s star was on the rise and he would soon achieve major success with singles like “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” and “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” the latter of which reached number one in the US country charts in 1954.
But the short-lived relationship he shared with Billie Jean is mainly notable because he introduced her to the man who would soon become her second husband: Hank Williams. That was in Nashville, in the winter of 1951.
Billie Jean fell for Hank immediately; it was the very definition of a whirlwind romance. The couple married in a private ceremony in Minden, Louisiana in October of 1952. Billie Jean was 19 years old.
Hank was already an icon in his own time, and his romance with Billie Jean certainly caught the public imagination. Hank saw the advantage to be gained from playing up their marriage in the public domain.
For that reason, he and Billie Jean repeated their vows twice, live onstage at two separate concerts in New Orleans, in front of audiences of 28,000. Though their romance has entered into music legend, it in fact only lasted around two and a half months.
Hank Williams died under mysterious circumstances on New Year’s Day 1953, leaving Billie Jean a widow at nineteen. Keen to maintain her late husband’s musical legacy, she took to the road, performing live as “Mrs. Hank Williams.” But this didn’t last too long.
Despondent at the death of Hank, Billie Jean was quick to embark on a new romance, this time to country singer Johnny Horton. This was to be her first truly long-term relationship. She and Johnny married in September of 1953, and she took up a key role in promoting and managing her husband’s career.
He soon soared into the upper echelons of the country music world, with songs like “Honky-Tonk Man,” “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismark” establishing him as a major talent. Billie Jean Horton was only too happy to give up a life on the road for a settled family life. The couple had two daughters together, and it seems that their married life was a happy one.
But it was not to last. Tragically, Johnny Horton was killed in an automobile smash in 1960, leaving Billie Jean widowed once again. She was just shy of thirty years old. Johnny’s death was devastating for Billie Jean in more ways than one.
His outlaw ways had left behind a raft of debts, including a hefty tax bill. Billie Jean couldn’t cope. But thanks to her late husband’s celebrity friends, including Johnny Cash, she just about managed to stay out of the red.
It was during this difficult time that she embarked on a love affair with Johnny Cash, whilst he was still married to his first wife Vivian Liberto. It was just a short-term fling, though, and soon the two of them went their separate ways.
But the heartache brought out the musical creativity in her, and she branched out into her own country career. Billie Jean Horton was already a famous face in the world of country music. There’s no escaping the fact that her associations with Hank and Johnny increased her marketability to the public.
In 1961, her record “Ocean of Tears” (a highly personal evocation of the tragedies she had endured) reached the US top 40. In spite of that, though, her main role was always as a sort of “keeper of the flame” when it came to the musical legacies of her two late husbands.
Billie Jean Horton has worked hard to keep their music in the public eye, and to ensure there is no danger of either Hank Williams or Johnny Horton ever being forgotten.
But her claim to the rights and estates of both of her musician husbands has been in frequent dispute, and she has often found herself at the center of legal battles. The most prominent of these was in the early 1970s when she fought to stop the distribution of an MGM movie about Hank wherein she was portrayed as “a harlot.”
She succeeded, and the film was suppressed. She has also clashed numerous times with Hank Williams, Jr. and his mother Audrey Williams, who was Hank Sr.’s first wife. Her most fearsome opponent was Hank’s elderly mother.
But through it all, Billie Jean Horton has always emerged victorious. In all the decades of legal battles she has fought, she never lost a single one. Whether it was fending off a claim from one of Hank’s purported illegitimate children or legally establishing the validity of their marriage, she has always come out on top.
Necessity forced her to eschew her youthful naivete and to build up a formidable bedrock of legal savvy. And she has never lost her passion for music, continuing to perform sporadically and to write and speak about the work of her husbands.
These days, now that she is in her 80s, Billie Jean Horton lives a sedate life in an assisted living facility. But her hard work has certainly paid off.
The musical legacies of Hank Williams and Johnny Horton are assured. If nothing else, for that, Billie Jean Horton deserves to be remembered fondly.