Finding Hank on the Lost Highway
We spend New Year’s Eve in a less than stellar hotel in Montgomery. I console myself by the fact that it’s the cheapest I could find, and it has a pool shaped like the state of Alabama. Early New Year’s Day, the day that Hank died, we show up at OAK HILL CEMETERY for the next stop on the tour his memorial service. As we walk up the hill to the gravesite we pass maybe forty cars. A crowd of seventy-five or so stands in a semi-circle around the grave. I am standing by a man who wears a red, white and blue striped oxford shirt, tight black Wrangler boot-cuts, pointy black boots, Blue Blocker sunglasses, and a large black cowboy hat. He holds a cigarette and takes short drags during the service.
Standing at the grave are three men Cecil Jackson, a Montgomery native instrumental in establishing the Official Hank Williams Museum here, Braxton Schuffer, an early member of Hank’s band, and Charles Carr, the man who was driving Hank’s Cadillac to a show in Canton, Ohio fifty-one years ago when he stopped to check on Hank – who had been sleeping in the backseat – only to find him dead.
The service is a cross between a funeral (a reading from Psalms, an affirmation that his memory lives on) and a meeting of museum supporters. A man gets up and tells about the latest donations, and invites everyone back to the museum for an open-mike and a day of festivities. A few photographers circulate through the crowd. One walks up close and begins taking pictures of a modest looking older woman, who as the camera snaps says, “Oh goodness, oh goodness,” without too much enthusiasm. I resist the urge to grab my camera and start snapping pictures in the photographer’s face.
We leave the cemetery and go downtown to the storefront HANK WILLIAMS MUSEUM. The space is relatively small, smaller than the Georgiana museum, but contains some interesting artifacts. One of Hank’s first guitars, photos of his funeral, the full blue suit he was wearing when he died (along with other items in the car – his slippers, a pistol, his suitcase) and the microphone from the Elite Club in Montgomery where Hank gave his last performance, three days before his death.
But the centerpiece of the museum overshadows everything else. Sitting in the middle of the main room is Hank’s last car, and the place of his death a huge 1952 powder-blue Cadillac convertible restored to show-room shine. The plaque with the car says that Hank Jr. drove it all through high school, and had it in storage until the museum opened. Photographs are prohibited in the museum, but someone later tells me that Jr. will let you have your picture taken with the car for $100.
We’re invited upstairs to have black-eyed peas and cornbread (it is, after all, New Year’s Day). Soon afterwards, folks start coming up to the microphone to perform for the crowd. Lum York, who is now in his eighties and was the Drifting Cowboy’s bass player and resident comedian, approaches the microphone and tells some jokes (“I was out at a party last night, and we were drinking. I needed some milk of magnesia. So I mixed it up with some vodka. Called it a ‘Phillips Screwdriver’.”), and a nine-year old country hopeful does a rendition of “Lovesick Blues” complete with nine-year old yodels. The tour is nearing an end.
On the way out, I wander through the gift shop to see if there’s anything I can’t live without. Its selection is more akin to the miscellany of an Alabama gas station than a museum gift-shop. T-shirts from the museum in bright orange hang next to shirts with one of the President’s post 9-11 speeches superimposed over a waving American flag. A Hank Williams dashboard bobble-head sits next to an almost pint-sized “Hillbilly Shot Glass.”
There is no Graceland for Hank Williams, and maybe that’s as it should be. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw now own the huge ranch below Nashville where he said he intended to retire. Mary Wallace told me they’re thinking of tearing it down. Maybe before they do, we’ll get a chance to go out there and see it. Wouldn’t that be great for the tour? Get your picture taken with Faith and Tim in front of Hank’s ranch. I’ll make a call tomorrow.