Hank Williams Pilgrimage

The more I learn about Hank Williams the more fascinated I become. This Alabama music legend with a tragically short career captured the hearts of millions with his magnetic onstage performances, wrote one poetic hit after the next, and lives on in honky tonk lore as an icon and near cult-like figure. As I was sinking deeper into the research of the honky tonk book I am writing, it became plain that I needed to make a pilgrimage up to Georgiana Alabama to see Hank’s Boyhood Home Museum.

And I knew just the girls who would go with me.

Yall have read about them before here on the blog, often referred to lovingly as The Chicks. These are the girls I have done some Montana fishing trips with, as well as our paddling-bluegrass-hiking trip in Virginia. I had a hunch they would be game for a daytrip up The Lost Highway.

We coordinated school drop-off times and organized carpools from Mobile and Fairhope, with the designated meeting spot of the Shell Station at the Stockton Ala exit on I-65. (Our adventures always comes with complicated logistics that would even stump the braintrust at NASA.) We parked extra cars at the truck stop and all six chicks piled into one vehicle to head North along the stretch of interstate that has been designated as The Lost Highway in honor of Hank himself.

The museum in Georgiana is small and modest but packed with photographs, show posters, royalty statements, and music memorabilia. Perhaps the greatest asset of the museum is Leona, the only staff member present when we were there, who knows more about Hank than all the biographies I have scoured put together. It was a thrill to hear her talk so lovingly about this country star she clearly adores, not to mention enjoy his music playing throughout the home while we browsed through the exhibit.

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Having listened to his music my entire life, I thought I knew about Hank Williams but I have learned so much about this enigmatic character in recent months. Some random tidbits that you might already know, or might enjoy learning as well…

1. With such a reputation for alcohol and drug use, it’s fascinating that Hank didn’t really drink as much (in terms of sheer quantity) as we might think. He would sometimes go for long periods, six months or longer, without drinking really at all. And people also claim he actually had a low tolerance for alcohol. It didn’t take much. Clearly he was tormented with the stronghold alcohol and pain medication had on him and tried to walk the straight and narrow as best he could.

2. According to Leona who has personally spoken with many members of Hank’s band, The Drifting Cowboys, Hank was all about family family family. He was basically a good hearted guy who respected his band members and was very “generous” with them on stage, allowing them to showcase their talents. Supposedly the only time he was cross with them was if they interrupted him while he was deep in songwriting mode.

3. Hank was buried in a Nudie suit. This is no great surprise, but sure is comforting to me to know it…it’s just as it should be.

4. Hank’s last show was Dec 19th at the Skyline Club in Austin TX. What blows me away is that his widow Billie Jean (Hank’s second wife) went on just a few months later to marry Hank’s fellow Louisiana Hayride star, singer Johnny Horton. Eight years after Hank died, Johnny Horton played the Skyline Club in Austin TX and died in a wreck on his way home. EERIE! After Horton’s funeral Billie Jean told her father, “I’m only 28 years old and I have buried two legends.” Legends who both played their final show at the Skyline Club. Too weird.

As much as we know about Hank Williams, it seems so many questions remain. Questions around his drinking and drug use, his back pain, his relationship with his father, his relationships with wives Audrey and Billie Jean, his long lost daughter Jett and the legal battles over his estate. Mystery surrounding the details of his death. There are even theories that he had a heart attack as early as his last tour in Texas and that he may have left the Skyline Club in an ambulance, taken to Brackenridge Hospital.

I didn’t square up any long standing mysteries or settle any conspiracy theories yesterday, but I did enjoy spending time at the museum, hearing stories and seeing all the artifacts from his life.

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amy hank

amy tine hank

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After the museum we toured around downtown Greenville. We saw the Ritz Theater where Leona says Hank had his first show. We browsed around a great looking home décor shop called Karen Rainey Interiors and then grabbed some sweet treats to go at the Camelia Bakery. We also ordered late lunch to go at Bates House of Turkey and hit the road back to the Shell Station and home with turkey gumbo, cranberry salad, and old Hank songs in our heads.

5 thoughts on “Hank Williams Pilgrimage

  1. Sounds like the perfect day! Find the answers to all your lingering questions and then let us know…..so we do not have to do the work!

  2. I’m not sure anyone will ever get to the bottom of these mysteries but I think his life is almost as intruiging as his music is proignant. One thing is for sure, he is a cultural treasure for Alabama!!

  3. Christine, where does honky tonk fit in the country & western spectrum? What’s the sound, the attitude, etc. that characterizes honky tonk? Please don’t make me wait for the book!

  4. no problem! here’s a deconstructed, off-the-cuff answer…

    the specific origins of honky tonk are blurry because it’s a musical mutt, frankly. (and delightfully) but most seem to agree it came out of texas from a blend of western swing and other sounds. back in the early 1900s the general genre of country and western was actually called Hillbilly. This was a broad, general term, not to be confused with bluegrass which was a subset of Hillbilly. In the East you had the string-heavy Appalachian sounds influenced by European immigrants. Texas had its own immigrants, many Germans who brought polka, and mixed with Mexican ranchero music. Honky Tonk shaped up as a blend of old-word Hillbilly, western swing, blues, even ragtime. I imagein many of the old honky tonks on the cattle trails probably sounded closer to a MS Delta blues juke joint than an Appalachian old time band. Compared to hillbilly and even western swing, Honky Tonk music slooooowed things way down which created more of an emphasis on the lead singer, a seismic shift from the ensemble of traditional hillbilly and western swing. The lead singer had the focus and with the slower melody, there was greater focus on his lyrics, thus creating more of a storytelling format. since the honky tonks emerged in the saloons, dancehalls and beerhalls of Texas and Oklahoma, the stories that resonated with the rougnecks, misfits, underdogs and outcasts were stories of heartache, love lost, the ardors of working life.

    the reason the western style of honky tonk and western swing became more popular than is hillbilly cousin with its gingham and overalls is because of Hollywood. In the 1930s movies made the image of the western drifter cowboy the ultimate in romatic figures. the world fell in love with the cowboy. which greased the way for honky tonk to edge out hillbilly imagery in country music

    the 40s and 50s were the heyday of honkytonk as we know it with stars such as Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce, not to mention the pedal steel guitar. Nashville softened the sound of country music in the 60s with lush orchestras and complex arrangements. The outlaw music movement of the 70s (ie, willie waylon austin live music) was an attempt to bring honkytonk back to country music, with updated rocking sounds of course

    so that’s off the top of my head. I haven’t touched on the importance of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams here….but I will another day. cause they were. muy importante.

    oh, fun fact. first country recording was by a Texas fiddler named Eck Robertson who recorded a song called “Sallie Gooden” on one side, and a duet with Henry Gilliland called “Arkansaw Traveler” on the other. Released 1922. Jimmie Rodgers wasn’t far behind at all…

    On one of the Hank Williams live radio shows on the REVEALED album you hear him call out to the band something to the effect of, “now let’s do a little sallie gooden…” I think that’s too cool.

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