Salute to a legend

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 14, 2004

He was a Butler County boy, whose music became legendary, but like all good folk heroes, the man could not live up to the legend.

He was Hank Williams Sr.

This weekend, fans from around the world will converge on rural Butler County to visit his boyhood home in Georgiana.

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These are not your simple tourists, but rather, die-hard fans of the music of a man who died more than 50 years ago.

Everyone knows he was one of the largest figures in the history of country music, but country music really isn’t big enough to contain him. He never heard the phrase &uot;rock ‘n’ roll,&uot; but some of his stuff sounds like it, and many musicians credit him as an influence. Bob Dylan called him his favorite songwriter; Leonard Cohen wrote a song about him.

Some of his music was blues and some music was gospel.

Of course, to the Hank faithful, it is all gospel.

Before Hank, songs were written in some New York office, so for him to come along as his own guitarist/singer/songwriter was rather new.

But according to some music icons, that move was imitated for years by various artists.

Who knows what Hank Williams would have accomplished had he not died at age 29 in the backseat of a


No matter what, it is safe to say that he would still be considered a major figure in the development of American music.

Hank’s death also gave him the heroic rite of remaining young forever, much like Elvis, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

Their fans did not watch him grow old.

New fans hear Williams and it still has authority with them because it is not an old man singing, but rather one not so much older than themselves.

Hank Williams spent Christmas 1952 with his family in Montgomery, showing Billie Jean Jones around, hoping to win his family’s approval.

On Dec. 28, Williams put on a coat and tie and played his last show, a party for the Montgomery chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.

Some friends thought he was in pretty good shape for a guy recovering from years of drugs and alcohol abuse. Reporters described him as &uot;tired looking,&uot; though, and other friends worried that he was seriously ill, and observed that he even had trouble controlling his bladder.

Williams enlisted 18-year-old Charles Carr, an Auburn freshman and sometime cabdriver, to drive his baby blue 1952 Cadillac to Ohio.

It was dark on New Year’s Eve, when Carr and Williams checked into the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville.

Carr ordered a couple of steak dinners from the dining room. The teenager ate his steak; Williams picked at his but didn’t finish it. According to reports released in the days to come, Williams began hiccupping and went into convulsions.

Carr checked him out at 10:45. By all accounts, he was not conscious; the only signs of life Hank Williams showed were two &uot;coughing sounds.&uot;

Porters loaded Hank Williams into the back of the blue Cadillac.

By 11:45, Carr had left Knox County, driving on 11W near Blaine. Passing a car, he pulled into the oncoming lane and narrowly missed a vehicle coming toward him. Unfortunately for Carr, the driver of the car was an on-duty state trooper. Corporal Swann Kitts turned around and approached the Cadillac. &uot;I noticed Williams and asked Carr if he could be dead, as he was pale and blue-looking,&uot; Kitts recalled. &uot;But he said Williams had drank six bottles of beer and a doctor had given him two injections to help him sleep.&uot;

On New Year’s Day, with dawn coming, Carr began to worry about the silence in the back seat. Arriving in Oak Hill, W.Va., a small town of 3,500 southeast of Charleston, he finally pulled over at about 5:30 a.m. He found that his boss was cold to the touch, unresponsive and, in fact, already stiff. When he pushed Williams’ hand, it sprang back. He sped to the local hospital, six miles away, where Hank Williams was pronounced dead on arrival.

The news of his death traveled fast. It even arrived in that day’s papers around the country that Hank Williams had died in Oak Hill, W. Va. Newspapers reported that he was 37. Many thought he looked 10 years older than that. But he was only 29.

When word got to the shocked crowd in Canton, the audience sang, &uot;I Saw the Light.&uot; Williams’ services in Montgomery saw the biggest crowd since Jefferson Davis’s funeral. In 1953, reporters found it remarkable that the crowd was biracial.

So back to this weekend, it is the 25th annual Hank Williams Festival, where musical artists and fans pay tribute to the legend.

According to Margaret Gaston, who works at the museum, people are surprised to learn how far reaching Williams’ music goes.

&uot;I can’t tell you an accurate number of how many have gone through the museum,&uot; she said.

&uot;I can tell you that we’ve had visitors from 41 states and all of the Canadian provinces.

We’ve also had visitors from England, Germany, France and Japan.&uot;

Those who visit the museum are quite surprised by what they find.

There are suits on display that Williams wore at one point or another in his short life.

One is a gray/white pinstripe seersucker suit with a stylish silk tie.

Remarkably, he wore this more than 60 years ago, yet is very much like the ones in style today.

The suit was found in the estate of Neal McCormick, whom Williams visited in Florida.

Gaston said the way the story goes is that Williams told McCormick to &uot;hang on to this suit, it might be worth something one day.&uot;

Williams fan David Mitchell purchased the suit at an auction and brought it to Georgiana complete with the clothier dummy to hang it on.

Another Williams suit on display was purchased at an auction of the estate of singer Boxcar Willie.

One of the museum’s prized possessions is a bench that Williams stood on as a boy while his mother, Lillie Skipper Williams, played the pump organ at Mount Olive West Baptist Church.

Another fan, Betty Robinson, from Oklahoma brought a hand-sewn quilt to display that gives a timeline of Williams’ life.

Gaston said it is called &uot;Life in stitches.&uot;

Sitting next to the quilt display is a Silvertone radio that is on loan from the Gruenewald family and in the bedroom across from the radio is a blown-up version of Williams’ birth certificate, which proclaims his first name as Hiriam.

In the same room are drapes with the sheet music for Your Cheatin’ Heart that Audrey Williams, Hank’s first wife, had made for their home on Franklin Road in Nashville.

On the mantel sits logs from the original Thigpen’s Log Cabin that was a roadhouse in Georgiana where Williams played often.

Gaston pointed out that Williams is not used as a drawing card as he should be and that often people visit the museum in Montgomery and learn about the one in Georgiana.

&uot;When they are getting ready to leave, if they are headed north, I always tell them about the museum in Montgomery, and many come in and say they learned about the one here while visiting in Montgomery,&uot;

she said. &uot;Anything Hank, no matter where it is located, is a good thing.&uot;

Recreational vehicles began arriving in Georgiana on Monday, and they hope this year, the weather will cooperate.

The fun gets under way at 3 p.m. on Friday.

Brad Magness and Lee Roy Parnell are to perform.

On Saturday, Magness, David Church, Larry Crocker, Connie Smith, Jett Williams and Marty Stuart will perform. Gates open at 8 a.m.

This fun-filled weekend of down home fun and country music, arts and crafts, good food and drink is only $15 for Friday and $25 for Saturday.

Sorry folks, but advance tickets went off sale on Monday.

This is an outdoor event and there is no reserved seating.

Bring your lawn chairs, but not lounger chairs and go to the park and sit a spell.

Be aware that coolers, food and drinks are not allowed inside the park, as there are refreshment vendors inside.

For more information, call 376-2396.

To visit the museum and learn more about all things Hank, it is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Call 376-2555 for more information.