He was short, thin as a leaf. Twenty-nine years of smoking, drinking and taking drugs had exhausted him. At 29, his sick heart gave out.
Like many talented singers and artists, Hank Williams also died far too young.
Confused and shocked by all the screaming fans at every stop, Hank struggled to deal with fame. He was like so many artists who feel they don’t deserve it.
After all, Hank grew up in rural Alabama poverty and carried spinal disease with him throughout his short life. He was the kind of person that people looked at without seeing.
Everything changed when the curtain was lifted on his spectacular talent and singing career. He was center stage in the spotlight, with the chills of teenage stage fright.
The curtain fell, however, on Hank as he curled up in a sleepy fetal position in the back seat of his powder-blue Cadillac, heading to a singing jig in Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Day 1953.
This Caddy car, along with many of his cowboy costumes and personal effects, are on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, just down the highway from Auburn. The museum houses a fantastic collection of memorabilia from Hank’s surprisingly brief life.
Knowing my long admiration for the country singer, my daughter Karen took me — and my wife Jean — to the museum for my birthday. What a wonderful morning it was, walking around the place and seeing Hank’s things, his old cowboy suits and high heel western boots.
The visit took me back to a time when I listened to Cousin Al play Hank’s records before sunrise on WDAK radio station in Columbus. It was in the early 1950s.
Waking up to Hank’s “Hey, Good Looking” and “Lovesick Blues” was a great way to start the day, complete with foot tapping and singing.
Comedian Garrison Keillor writes that without Hank, there would have been no Elvis. He is right. Hank struck the match and Elvis lit the fire. We are still burning.
The women screamed and swayed when Hank sang, and they carried it over to Elvis’ rockabilly, hip-swivelling performances of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
When Hank came out on stage, the screaming started. He caused a sensation on the stages of the Louisiana Hayride in Baton Rouge and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
The young musician didn’t know it then, but he was a trailblazer who set the beat for all singers, country and pop, that followed.
I noticed one thing the museum didn’t have. It was Hank’s Pulitzer Prize, the special citation given to him for lifetime achievement as a musician.
Maybe one day the museum will acquire it. The award would be at home there among all his other honors and awards.
The award praises Hank for “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in life. American”.
All his life, Hank was an Alabama boy. It is therefore normal that his personal collection is in Montgomery.
Hank was born near Georgiana in 1923, and a small museum there celebrates his childhood. A black street musician named “Tee-Tot” taught him to play the guitar. Her distinctive singing voice and yodelling came naturally.
Montgomery was his home base in his late teens and into his twenties. He enjoyed returning to his quiet Montgomery home after his raucous singing gigs and tours.
With his talent as a guitarist, songwriting became easy for him. He was gifted with speech, he possessed the sensibility and the soul of a poet. His songs are beautiful, well-constructed ballads written with talent and imagination.
The ghost that haunted him, however, was his deep insecurity. He never felt worthy of his talent. Hank’s screaming fans frightened him, as he felt uncomfortable, even scared, by all the hype. To support himself, Hank turned to alcohol and drugs, and they led him down a dark path that ended in his untimely death.
In his short career, however, he wrote and sang 11 No. 1 hits on Billboard magazine’s country and western charts. It’s an amazing achievement, for sure. Too bad Hank couldn’t cope. Maybe if he had had more time, he could have found ways to deal with the fame.
Mourners, estimated at 25,000, turned out for his funeral in Montgomery. They filled the downtown auditorium and spilled out into the many streets around it. No one had ever seen anything like it.
Hank was interred in Oakwood Cemetery and his grave is visited daily by dozens of fans. It serves as a major shrine, if you will, to an American original that changed the course of music in America in its time.
Ralph Morris is a retired journalist who lives near Auburn. His email address is [email protected].