Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m not really a Hank Williams fan. Though I love country music, his “twangy” style just never caught my fancy. But who can not appreciate the contributions he made to the American music scene? Over 50 years after his untimely death, Hank Williams has an ever growing legion of fans, his music still plays on radio stations and jukeboxes around the world, and his legacy lives on. The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama celebrates the life of this music pioneer who shaped much of what we hear today.
Born south of Montgomery in Butler County on September 17, 1923, Hiram “Hank” Williams learned to play the guitar and sing on the streets of Georgiana. His career began at the age of fourteen when he won a talent show at the Empire Theater in Montgomery Alabama in 1937 with his original tune WPA Blues. The rest is music history.
Williams made his way to Nashville, and in 1949 he stopped the show at the Grand Ole Opry when he performed Lovesick Blues. Williams was both an accomplished singer and a prolific songwriter. His short career was like a comet streaking across the sky over the country’s roadhouses and honky tonks with compositions like Your Cheatin’ Heart, Jambalaya, Ramblin’ Man, Beyond the Sunset, and Kaw-Liga. And like all comets, he burned out way too soon.
Williams died in the back of his baby blue 1952 Cadillac convertible on January 1, 1953. He left behind a grieving family and fans, a son who would make his own indelible mark on the music business, and memories of a lonely, haunted man who learned early on that he expressed his pain best with a guitar in his hands, while standing on a stage.
Located in downtown Montgomery, where Hank Williams lived from 1937 to 1953, the Hank Williams Museum displays the most complete collection of the singer’s memorabilia to be found anywhere.
Exhibits include costumes Williams wore on stage, musical instruments, albums, photographs, portraits, a magnificent old Wurlitzer jukebox, and the Cadillac in which he made his final journey. Other items on display include the singer’s cowboy boots, ties, hats, his saddle, piano, Hank’s 1947 Gibson Guitar, the microphone and stand Hank used at his last performance, his blue suede shoes, suitcase, shaving kit, his favorite revolver, a fiddle, a 1939 Sidney Lanier High School yearbook, signed programs and books, sheet music, songbooks, and Hank Jr.’s first cowboy boots and Boy Scout hats. Williams’ platinum records and awards are also on display. His music plays from hidden speakers as you tour the museum’s galleries.
A bust of the singer greets visitors to the museum’s lobby, along with a handsome portrait, and a statue of the wooden Indian Kowaliga.
Legend has it that Kowaliga was a Creek Indian who once lived on Lake Martin. He fell in love with a beautiful Indian maiden and asked her to marry him. Alas, her father had already promised her to another and she rejected Kowaliga’s proposal and left, never to be seen again. Heartbroken, Kowaliga swore to strand on the edge of the lake and wait faithfully for her return. He stood on that lakeshore so long that his feet finally took root and he turned to wood. In August, 1952, Hank Williams visited Lake Martin and was so taken by Kowaliga’s sad tale that he immortalized him in his song Kaw-Liga.
While the artifacts exhibited tell a lot about Hank’s career, I found that the personal memories from his band members, wife Audrey, and fellow musicians really helped me understand the man behind the songs.
In a series of notes, Audrey recalls her first meeting with Hank and their whirlwind courtship. They had their first date the night after they met, he proposed to her on their second date the next night, and they were married a year later. Audrey recalled “Pretty soon he said ‘I love you’ so much I got to believing him.”
Any new relationship takes work, and the rigors of show business and Hank’s mercurial personality took their toll on the marriage. The couple separated several times in the early days of their marriage, but Audrey recalled “I always went back because I knew the heart of Hank Williams was great. He was often misunderstood because his emotions, his thinking, and his feelings were so much deeper than the average person’s. But his love was even deeper. It can never be written on paper. Words won’t express him or his life.” Audrey’s notes recall that some of Hank’s best “suffering” songs were written during the times they were separated.
When Hank Williams bought eight year old Cecil Jackson a coke at a small gas station located across the street from where he lived, he created a fan for life. From then on, Cecil listened to Hank on radio station WSFA in Montgomery. When Cecil was eleven, Hank came to the Lightwood Community in Elmore Country for a show. The youngster changed a tire for Hank that night, and the singer later dedicated a song to the Lightwood flat fixers. In 1952, one week before Hank Williams’s death, Cecil rotated and balanced the tires on Hank’s 1952 baby blue Cadillac. Cecil Jackson realized a long-held dream when he opened the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery on February 8, 1999. Today he serves as president of the Hank Williams Memorial Foundation Montgomery. Jackson’s daughter, Beth Birtley, is the museum manager. Influenced by her father’s love for the music legend, she spent most of her life listening to country music, especially Hank Williams.
Hank Williams’ professional debut was in Montgomery, and his final public performance was here also. “He attended a musicians’ union meeting,” Beth Birtley explains. “This was on December 28, 1952, at the Elite (pronounced E-light) Cafe, which was on Montgomery Street.” A few days later he was dead, but his music will live on forever. Oakwood Cemetery, the final resting place of Hank and Audrey Williams, is only five minutes from the Museum.
For his fans, a visit to the Hank Williams Museum is a trip into the past, a past that continues today; the life and times of Hank Williams. For younger generations, the museum offers the opportunity to get to know the man revered by generations of music lovers. Visit the place where the man who left his mark on the musical world and you just may discover that he has left his mark on you as well.
The Hank William Museum is located at 118 Commerce Street in Montgomery, just one mile from Exit 172, off Interstate 65. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. There is limited parking at the museum and no room for large RVs. Park your rig at a local RV park and drive your dinghy or tow vehicle. For more information on the Hank Williams Museum, call (334) 262-3600 or visit their website at www.thehankwilliamsmuseum.net.
Congratulations Jenny Johnson, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper, book three in Phyllis Entis’ Damien Dickens mystery series. We had 40 entries this time around. stay tuned, a new contest starts soon!
Thought For The Day – I used to be a people person, but people ruined that for me.