‘Hank used to sit on these steps,’ she told me as we approached the house. Not much of a statement but it sent a shiver through me. I was in a place I thought I’d never be. When the country legend Hank Williams was a boy, he would sit on these steps in rural Alabama and play the comb and paper, his first musical instrument.
When I was a boy in the north of England, the music of Hank Williams permeated the house I grew up in, thanks to my father. At that age, I just liked the sound and the bright yellow labels on the MGM 78s. You have to live a little to know why songs like Your Cheating Heart and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry can rip you apart, as Hank Williams put his life into his lyrics more bluntly than anyone, ever.
And he grew up here, in little backwoods Georgiana, where his boyhood home is now a museum. I’m met by Mary Wallace, who runs his fan club from the house across the street. ‘The museum opened in June 1992,’ she tells me. ‘Wal-mart donated the paint. I’m very good at getting people to help out.’ I can believe it, but I expected a tumble-down shack and this is a sizeable wooden single-storey home, complete with porch and rocking chairs.
‘The family moved in in 1930,’ Mary explains, ‘when Hank was seven years old. Their previous house burned down, and the owner of this house here was one of the wealthiest men in Georgiana, and he offered it to them when he heard about the family tragedy. But Hank’s family wasn’t especially poor, no worse than folks around them – everyone was poor in those days. Y’all come on in now.’
I wander through the rooms in something of a daze, so crammed are they with records, photos, magazines, letters, news cuttings, guitars, suits, hats and ties. I ask Mary what the most prized possession is. ‘For me it’s this here little wooden bench. It comes from Mount Olive Church and Hank stood on it to sing in church, alongside his mother. I love it because it’s just so unique and personal. They do say he was the smallest and youngest in that church, but he sure was the loudest.’
At the back of the house is what they think was Hank’s bedroom. ‘We don’t know for sure,’ Mary admits, ‘but he always said his room was the one nearest the tracks, and this is it. It’s where he’d lie in his bed and hear that train whistle blow.’
Time for me to hit the road to Montgomery, the road Hank Williams took when he finally made it big and bought a house in Alabama’s capital. Right in the small downtown area is the Hank Williams Museum, run by long-time Hank fan Cecil Williams. His grand-daughter on the till persuades him to come out from doing some decorating behind the scenes and meet the folks from England.
‘I knew Hank to say hello to when he moved to Montgomery,’ Cecil says in answer to my question. ‘Course I was only a boy then but he’d talk to us. I was 16 when he died and remember hearing the news in a car on the way home from school. I had the idea for this museum 40 years ago and knew I’d open it someday.’
Lacking capital, Cecil made all the display cases himself, an immaculate job, and now they bulge with Hank’s clothes, including his flash cowboy stage suits, his boots, sheet music and one of his first guitars from the 1930s. ‘About 90 percent of what’s in here is owned by Hank’s son, Hank Williams Jnr, but he kindly lets us have it on loan.’
One of those items is the powder-blue Cadillac in which Hank died on New Year’s Day, 1953, from a mixture of drink and drugs – one of those prescribed drugs would later help kill Elvis Presley. For both of those musical greats, the word ‘pain-killer’ was deadly accurate. When Hank died 28,000 people attended his memorial service at the Montgomery Auditorium, with room for only 3,000 of them inside.
It’s my next stop, that and the cemetery, and I get directions from Cecil’s grand-daughter. ‘If you can’t find it,’ she says, ‘y’all come back and we’ll take you there. We had some folks from England come into the museum last year, and they was all excited. They’d just visited Hank’s grave and Hank Junior was there too, and took their photo and talked to them and everything. Y’all come back and see us sometime anyway.’
Opposite the auditorium a bronze statue of Hank stands, glowing in the late afternoon light. We drive on to the Oakwood Cemetery where Hank’s buried in rather an ornate grave on top of the hill. Next to him is his first wife, Audrey, who gave him pleasure and pain, great doses of both, and who he was talking to when he sang ‘your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you’ but equally she was ‘hey, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’?’
Hank Junior isn’t there, but Hank himself certainly is. I think of the tribute song by contemporary country singer Alan Jackson, describing a visit to Hank’s grave. ‘It’s midnight in Montgomery. He’s always singing there.’ And when it’s time to leave I choke back a few sniffles at this life of tragic genius, of stardom and drink and love and pain, and a song-writing ability that got him dubbed ‘the hillbilly Shakespeare’. We get into the car and drive away.