Roots of a legend

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 18, 2003

Fifty years ago, Hank Williams died a lonely death in the back of his blue Cadillac on his way to a Canton, Ohio concert. The date was January 1, 1953.

Although many things fade over the course of 50 years, memories of Hank Williams haven’t seemed to suffer that fate. Memories of one of Greenville’s most famous favorite sons are as crystal clear as ever.

Buster MacGuire has had contact with many of those who knew Hank during his days as a Greenville resident.

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&uot;Bennie and Maude Baisden used to live across the street from the Williams’ house on the corner of Patsaliga and Walnut streets,&uot; MacGuire said. &uot;They used to tell me about Williams and several others sitting on the porch and playing. ‘You never heard such a bunch of caterwauling in all your life,’ they used to say.&uot;

MacGuire reported that another Greenville resident, Leo Hudson, who managed the Greenville Country Club before he passed away, played in a combo with Williams and was invited to ride with him to Canton, Ohio, the night he died. But Hudson had another gig, and declined.

Another Greenvillian with a story to tell is Jesse Veazey. Veazey attended school with Williams. Veazey and Williams would team up for class performances.

&uot;I was taking violin lessons from Dr. Phillip Spears’ mother, and Hank was just learning to play the guitar,&uot; Veazey said. &uot;We played &uot;Maple on the Hill&uot; at school one day and another time for Mr. Johnson’s Occupation Class.We only played together a few times, but everyone seemed to like it.&uot;

Veazey said he remembered Williams as a &uot;likable fellow.&uot;

&uot;He was just a normal kid as far as I could tell,&uot; Veazey said. &uot;He got along well with everyone.&uot;

It’s stories such as these that have kept the mystique of Williams alive for so long, and his fans just can’t seem to get enough of the trivia.

But a twist to the Hank Williams’ story that is getting a lot of play these days is the emergence of information about Rufus &uot;Tee Tot&uot; Payne, Williams mentor in learning to play the guitar.

Payne was a resident of Georgiana, and spent a lot of time playing at parties in Greenville and with Williams at his home. It was in our small corner of the world that Williams learned to sing and play the &uot;blues&uot; under Tee Tot’s supervision.

Six years ago, Williams’ son, Hank Jr., commissioned Alice Harp, a Birmingham librarian, to find Tee Tot’s grave. Harper found the grave in Montgomery’s Lincoln Cemetery. Since the discovery, a marker has been placed on the grave and much attention has been focused on the long overlooked musician.

&uot;Williams told a Montgomery Advertiser reporter in 1951 that ‘all the music training I ever had was from Tee Tot.’&uot; Harp said. &uot;But he was mostly overlooked despite Williams’ attempts to give him credit. Thanks to Hank Jr., Tee Tot is finally getting the attention he deserved.&uot;

Harp said that not only has she published information about Tee Tot, but that the word has spread nationwide.

&uot;A reporter from the L.A. Times recently has done a story on Williams and Tee Tot, she said. &uot;January 2, Hank Jr. included Tee Tot’s son, Henderson Payne, in a televised Grand Ole Opry program honoring his father and included a salute to Tee Tot.

Henderson, 82, also lived in Greenville until moving to Kokoma, Ill.

Harp said the story of Tee Tot and Williams is a moving one.

&uot;They remained friends, despite the differences in age and race, even after Williams’ success, and even though Williams moved away,&uot; she said. &uot;He even made provisions for a headstone to be placed on Tee Tot’s grave before he died in 1953.&uot;