Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Midday in Montgomery: Hank Williams Museum and Gravesite

MONTGOMERY -- If there’s a pilgrimage for the country music faithful, this must be the Promised Land – visiting Hank William’s grave.
Hank Williams Sr. was born an hour south of here, moving to the Alabama capital several years later. He shined shoes and sold peanuts on the streets in downtown Montgomery; played cafes and clubs around town; won a talent contest here at the age of 14; sang 15-minute segments on the radio; and left for Nashville while still a relatively young man. He considered Montgomery home. And he and longtime wife Audrey are buried here at Oakwood Cemetery –a shrine frequented by fans and country music stars alike.
So, where else but Montgomery would you find the Hank Williams Museum ( Located downtown on Commerce Street, it contains the largest collection of Hank memorabilia in the world. The centerpiece: his 1952 baby blue Cadillac where he died in the back seat in West Virginia, on New Year’s Day 1953. (Hank Jr. actually owns the car; he drove it while he was in high school.) And of course there are Hank’s awards, records, suits, boots and everything else you can think of on display here.
Beth Petty manages the museum, which opened in 1999. Beth’s father, Cecil Jackson, had the initial dream and put together the early collection. She can talk for hours about the Williams family legacy, how Hank Jr. supports the museum and what Hank meant to the people of Montgomery.
She’ll also give you directions to Oakwood Cemetery just a mile away. I’m told it’s easy to find Hank and wife Audrey’s graves – they’re on the top of the hill with the biggest marble markers. So I drive five minutes and pay my respects. There’s a beautiful river view to the north with mountains in the distance. In the midday sun on a clear afternoon, it’s easy to feel the energy and reverence that inspired songs like “Midnight in Montgomery” and “The Ride” years after his death.
My only surprise was that there were no other people in the cemetery. Maybe a Wednesday afternoon in September provides a quieter time to visit,
And probably this peaceful serenity is for the best. Hank led a difficult life – physical pain, heartache and the rigors of a professional career that only lasted five years. Yet his hardship brought such honest, heartfelt lyrics that touched millions – from my parents and millions of early fans who cried when he died, to artists who continue to pay tribute to his influences. If there’s anyone who deserves a peaceful Montgomery resting place, it’s definitely Hank.

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