Hank Williams is regarded by many, including this writer, as the father of contemporary country music. Although Hank died at the very young age of 29, he was a prolific song writer who recorded 225 songs in a five-year career, 128 of which he wrote. Thirty-five of those singles (five released after his death) placed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 11 number-one hits. He is credited with making country music a major genre in popular music.
Right here in Montgomery, Ala., where his career began, the Hank Williams Museum preserves a complete collection of Hank Williams memorabilia, including the famous 1952 baby-blue Cadillac convertible in which Hank took his “last ride” the night he died. The museum also houses items such as concert programs, costumes worn onstage, records, photographs and more. It’s an invaluable collection that spotlights the life and career of a man who set the standard for modern country music.
Hiram King Williams, who was born on September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive, Ala., later changed his name to “Hank.” In 1937, he moved to Montgomery, Ala., with his mother, where she operated a boarding house. At the age of 13, Hank was already playing guitar and singing, and he began to write songs as well. Hank participated in a talent show at the Empire Theater, where he won first prize and drew the attention of WSFA radio station producers. Listeners called the station asking to hear the talented young man, and he soon had a regular show twice a week. Soon after he formed a band, The Drifting Cowboys, and they performed on the air.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, it was the end of the Drifting Cowboys and Hank’s radio show. But it was just a lull before some very big things in Hank’s career came about. After moving to Mobile for a time and working in a shipyard, Hank met Audrey Sheppard in 1943 at a performance. They were married in 1944 and moved back to Montgomery in 1945. Hank began singing and playing on the radio again.
In 1946, the couple traveled to Nashville to meet Fred Rose, who was head of Acuff-Rose Publishing, and Rose asked Hank to record two songs for Sterling Records – “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin.” Both were successful and in 1947 Hank got his first record deal with MGM Records.
Hank’s first MGM single, “Move It On Over,” was an immediate hit and his popularity began to grow by leaps and bounds. He followed it with “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and “Lovesick Blues,” which became his first number one hit. The years that followed were filled with songs that have become iconic:
• My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
• Dear John
• Cold, Cold Heart
• Hey, Good Lookin
• I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)
• Honky Tonk Blues
It is amazing to think how many more songs the world would know and love had Hank Williams survived. Sadly, his life was cut short when he passed away while traveling to a concert in Ohio on Jan. 1, 1953. He was traveling in the back of the now-famous blue Cadillac when his driver, then-17-year-old Charles Carr, noticed the singer had been quiet for a couple of hours. The driver pulled over and he found that Hank had died due to heart failure. Hank was only 29 years old. Incidentally, Charles Carr, a resident of Montgomery, died recently.
Hank’s funeral, held at Montgomery’s City Auditorium on Jan. 4, 1953, was the largest funeral in the South. Crowds of folks who could not get into the auditorium packed South Perry Street in front of the building to mourn the death of a superstar. Hank is buried at Oakwood Cemetery Annex in Montgomery, and his wife Audrey is laid to rest there next to him. There is a statue of Hank Williams in the park across from the City Auditorium, which now houses City Hall.
More than 60 years after his death, Hank Williams is still a major influence on country music. Without any doubt, Hank and his music greatly influenced the development of American Music, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. Alabama Governor Gordon Persons officially proclaimed September 21 as “Hank Williams Day,” in 1954, which is still recognized today. In 1960, Hank was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1961, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also has been included in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame, and is listed as one of the 40 Greatest Men of Country Music by CMT, among his many honors. You have probably figured it out by now, but if you haven’t, I will let you know that Jere Beasley is a very big Hank Williams fan.
The Hank Williams Museum is located at 118 Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery, Ala. It is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; and Sunday from 1-4 p.m. Admission is $10 for ages 15 and older, and $3 for ages 3-14. Find out more at their website, www.thehankwilliamsmuseum.net, or call 334-262-3600.
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