Finding Hank on the Lost Highway
Fifty-one years after his death, at the age of 29, my wife and I decided to spend New Year’s doing a self-made tourist jaunt across Hank Williams’ Alabama. I know, the idea of “Hank Williams Heritage Tourism” smacks of inauthentic commercialism. But we were undeterred. We’re from Alabama, damn it! We consoled ourselves with geography-equaling-authenticity arguments, and set off to become tourists on the Lost Highway.
A camp whose mission is to help seriously ill children, seems an unlikely site for a piece of country music history. THE CHILDREN’S HARBOR, set on Lake Martin outside of Alexander City, looks like so many other summer camps on lakes across the state. But there, at the entrance, is a historical marker: “The Hank Williams Kowaliga Cabin.”
Open to the public but not advertised, for $250 a night you can rent the cabin where Hank spent some time writing songs in the summer of 1952. Using one existing photograph of the interior, the cabin has been redone to look almost exactly as it did when Hank was there the drapes, the positioning of the furniture, the wood stain have all been matched.
It’s quite a beautiful and simple space two small bedrooms, each with a set of twin beds, a large living room, a small kitchen with table, and a bathroom off the back. A few of Hank’s original records hang framed on the wall. After telling us about some visitors who say they can “feel the ghost” of Hank, the man who let us in asks, “You want me to stand sort of in the window so you can take a picture, make it look like Hank’s in there?” After pausing to think of the potential benefits of such a picture, I decline.
Leaving Alexander City we head towards Butler County, about two and a half hours southwest. These are the back roads Hank no doubt drove to and from Kowaliga. We pass through small towns I imagine creeping with the storied bootleggers Hank so frequently visited. I put “Kawliga” (Hank’s spelling) on the stereo and think of the story about how Hank, riding back to the cabin from a bootlegger, began beating out a rhythm on the dashboard, repeating, “Kawliga, kawliga.” Somewhere on one of these roads he wrote the song in his head, and played it for the first time in the cabin we just left.
Next on the tour is the HANK WILLIAMS BOYHOOD MUSEUM in Georgiana. Nestled off the main drag in a neighborhood where churches rival houses for space, the house is a simple one-story affair with high ceilings and a wrap-around porch. Hank lived here with his mother from 1930 to 1934 from the age of seven to eleven. It seems an inconsequential amount of time, but it was here most people believe he first learned to play the guitar, and here that he first started drinking, at age eleven.
Up until 1993, the house was privately owned. The previous owner tells stories of strangers calling, asking about the house in the middle of the night, and pilgrims showing up on their doorstep all hours of the day. Once, a man from Germany came to the front door asking to see under the house where Hank used to sit and play his guitar.
We pay the $3 admission and walk through the house. Among the original suits, fan artwork and memorabilia from Hank’s band the Drifting Cowboys, are artifacts that display the different periods of Hank’s life the Louisiana Hayride, the Hadacol Caravan, the one European tour he did with the Opry. In the bedroom hang elaborate drapes adorned with music notes and the titles to all of his hits that Audrey (Hank’s first wife and the mother of Jr.) had made after he died. On the wall in the hallway leading to his bedroom hangs a huge quilt, hand-made by a fan in Oklahoma, embroidered with 44 panels that chronicles each step of his life. On the opposite wall is a casual snapshot of Hank with Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby (Yeah. That Jack Ruby.)
As we leave, the woman at the desk tells us we should visit the HANK WILLIAMS INTERNATIONAL FAN CLUB next door. The president of the fan club, Mary Wallace, is calling for her dog Bingo, a tiny chihuahua-pug mix, as we walk up. Mary guides us through the Fan Club house, showing us her wall of photographs (pointing out photos of her with Hank III) and the newly remodeled kitchen. She grabs some extra copies of the Fan Club’s past newsletters for us, and realizes that she’s left the door open. Bingo is gone.
As soon as we walk out my wife and I now solidly in the hunt to find the missing dog a couple appears at the house. They’ve come from Massachusetts (with a strong Yankee accent to prove it) to do a pilgrimage of the sites. This is the third year they’ve come down, but, they tell us, last year – the fiftieth anniversary – was the best. Soon Bingo is recovered (up the hill, barking at a fenced dog five times his size) and we turn to leave. “Keep Hankin’,” says Mary as we walk out the door.