Accompanied by a friend — like me, a Northern-born fan — who had retired to Eufaula, Ala., I set off on a Hillbilly Shakespeare pilgrimage. The timing was keyed to the 43rd annual Hank Williams Festival in Georgiana, where Hank (given name: Hiram, pronounced “Harm”) lived from age 7 to 11. For those planning their own pilgrimages, note that next year will mark the centennial of the country music legend’s birth, and the state is already gearing up to celebrate. Montgomery will host its centennial festivities Sept. 15-17, 2023.
The city’s Hank Williams Museum houses an extensive public display of Williams memorabilia, a wondrous warren of framed vinyl and gold records (he had 11 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s country charts), photos, press clippings, songbooks, sheet music, royalty statements and hotel bills. Hank’s hits streamed from speakers and clips from his televised performances looped in a small, curtained theater.
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A steady stream of Williams pilgrims paused to read the detailed labels and admire various tributes, including a larger-than-life statue of a Native American donated by the Alabama National Fair. Most visitors seemed to instantly recognize this imposing figure, on which three woodcarvers spent 559 hours, as Kaw-Liga (the “Liga” pronounced like the “lijah” in Elijah), the subject of a posthumous Williams hit that director Wes Anderson used in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Tall glass-fronted cases displayed clothing, musical instruments and personal items of individual band and family members — including Hank’s first wife, Audrey; Lycrecia, Audrey’s daughter from a brief earlier marriage; and Jett Williams, Hank’s out-of-wedlock daughter. Audrey, who wrenched control of her husband’s career from his mother and probably inspired several rocky-marriage songs (“Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” to name two) loomed large.
Protected by a steel railing was “Audrey’s Dream”: the Chinese red-lacquer dining room set she bought for their Franklin Road home in Nashville, a house later owned by Tammy Wynette, “the first lady of country music.”
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The museum’s main draw is “Hiram’s Ragtop,” a baby-blue 1952 “Golden Anniversary” Cadillac convertible, in the back seat of which Williams — having been given morphine for his lifelong back pain, made worse on the road — died, somewhere between Knoxville, Tenn.’s Andrew Johnson Hotel and Oak Hill, W.Va. (It’s a long and contested story.)
The restored death car, used in Hank’s funeral procession, is on loan from Williams’s son, the country musician Hank Williams Jr. Now 73, Hank Jr. was born Randall Hank Williams and nicknamed Bocephus, after a Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist’s dummy, by his dad, who died when he was 3. Also on display are copies of Williams’s death certificate (cause of death: “Acute rt. ventricular dilation”) and the $418 funeral invoice.
After browsing in the well-stocked shop, we drove up to the Williams gravesite, a large, AstroTurfed plot in Montgomery’s Oakwood Annex Cemetery, where devotees gather every Jan. 1. Another landmark, still in business on Dexter Avenue, is Chris’ Hot Dogs, frequented by Hank, Elvis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who served as pastor of the nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (now the Dexter King Memorial Baptist Church) from 1954 to 1960.
Once (briefly) the capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery is now a top civil rights destination. The Rosa Parks Museum is located on the site of the Empire Theater, where the 14-year-old Williams, the “Singing Kid,” won $15 in a talent show. Next to the Hank Williams Museum on Commerce Street, in a former slave trade warehouse, is the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.
On to the Hank Williams Festival — Hankfest, for short. This year’s festival kicked off on the afternoon of Friday, June 3, at the Hank Williams Music Park in Georgiana, about an hour southwest of Montgomery.
Adjacent to the Hank Williams, Sr. Boyhood Home & Museum, the stage extended from Thigpen’s Log Cabin, a salvaged slice of a honky-tonk where Williams often performed. A bring-your-own-lawn-chairs, alcohol-free event, Hankfest is meant to recall the small-town shows of the singer’s early years. The audience made themselves right at home.
Temperatures were in the 80s, and festivalgoers fanned themselves with guitar-shaped paper fans with Hank’s picture on them. Backed by the house band, act after act was introduced by Hank Williams International Society and Fan Club President Sherri Brackin of Mobile, Ala. “Someone said, ‘This really is a fan club. Y’all got fans everywhere,’ ” she quipped.
The headliners were two Texans: Gene Watson, at 78 old enough to remember Hank, on Friday; and Neal McCoy, who performed “Kaw-Liga” in a video promoting his 2013 Charley Pride tribute album, on Saturday. About 20 other performers made appearances over the two days, though neither Hank Jr. nor Jett was on this year’s lineup.
Living proof of the international reach of the Hillbilly Shakespeare, one of the Friday performers was a white-suited Swede. Edward Johansson, who learned Hank’s tunes at his father’s knee, sang “The Log Train,” which Williams wrote about his own father, Elonzo (known as Lon), a lumber company engineer. Driving southern Alabama’s roads, one sees that pine, now traveling by flatbed truck, remains a key commodity.
Lon, who was confined to a veterans’ hospital because a chronic injury, never joined his family in Georgiana. His wife, Lillie; Hank’s older sister, Irene; and 7-year-old Hank moved to the small railroad town late in 1930. After an apartment fire, Lillie was offered a house on stilts owned by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad’s depot agent.
Opened as a museum in 1993, 127 E. Rose St. is an intact shell with a charming white exterior, few furnishings and some period appliances. A bedroom has been furnished as a tribute to Hank, with a biographically embroidered bedspread and a small Kaw-Liga figure. The house is mainly a gallery of artifacts that fans can enjoy while walking on the very floors that Hank (still Hiram at the time) did.
The family spent just four years in Georgiana before moving to Greenville, but they were formative. As a boy in Georgiana, one learns, Williams met Black street musician Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Sitting in an old car seat under the house, on a guitar Lillie bought for $3.50, he practiced the chords Payne taught him, paying for the lessons in coins earned shining shoes and selling peanuts and newspapers.
Mixing the blues absorbed from Payne with church music (“My mother was an organist at Mt. Olive, Alabama, and my earliest memory is sittin’ on that organ stool by her and hollerin,’ ” he told an interviewer in 1952), his own “hillbilly” sound and the jazzy style called western swing, Hank hit the sweet spot that raised country music’s postwar profile. A plaque on a bench at the Boyhood Home & Museum reads: “Standing on this bench in about the year 1927, Hank Williams performed for the first time, accompanied on the organ by his mother.”
It may be that something of that young boy persisted in the man who became a star of Shreveport’s “Louisiana Hayride,” then of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, though Williams, just divorced, was fired in 1952 for missin
g shows. (Alcoholism was a constant problem.) In a case at the Montgomery museum are issues of “Heart Throbs” and “Complete Love” — essentially romance comic books — from that troubled last year of a life tragically cut short.
Accompanying text reveals Williams’s answer when he was asked why he read all those “sissy” magazines. “Sissy? … Heck boy, they’re not sissy. Where do you think I get most of my ideas from?”
Selden is a writer based in New London, Conn. Find him on Twitter: @richseld.
118 Commerce St., Montgomery, Ala.
The most extensive public display of Hank Williams memorabilia, including the restored baby-blue Cadillac convertible in which he died and other items loaned from family and band members. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. Admission $12.50 ages 18 and up; $5 ages 15 to 17; $3 ages 5 to 14; free for ages 4 and under, seniors, military and AAA.
Hank Williams, Sr. Boyhood Home & Museum
127 E. Rose St., Georgiana, Ala.
Artifact-filled house where Hiram “Hank” Williams lived with his mother and sister from age 7 to 11, practicing chords he learned from Black street musician Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Adjacent to the Hank Williams Music Park, where the 2023 Hank Williams Festival will be held June 2-3. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission $5 per adult, $3 ages 12-17, under 12 free.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.