The Hank Williams Museum
By Roger “Hurricane” Wilson
For me, a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, is no different than one to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, or Clarksdale, Mississippi. It is there that I can feel the history wrap around me like Grandma’s quilt. From the Civil War to Civil Rights, the air is thick with history. Montgomery definitely brings out many feelings and many emotions. Much has changed since Jefferson Davis stood on the steps of the capital of the Confederacy, and since Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus giving birth to the Civil Rights Movement. Gone are the days when Governor George Wallace and Martin Luther King, Jr. could stare each other down from their office windows facing each other from the Capital, just a block from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The city is rising beautifully, with a new Riverwalk and a minor league baseball team.
Another part of the city’s glory days is its music history, which includes being the birthplace of both Big Mama Thornton and Nat King Cole. It is also where a large part of the story of the legendary Hank Williams takes place. There’s no doubt that Hank’s music has transcended the passage of time, not just nationally, but also globally. Montgomery is also where the late Cecil Jackson set out early in life on a mission to keep Hank’s legacy alive. When Cecil was eight years old, Hank bought him a coke at a small gas station located across the street from where he lived. This was the beginning of Montgomery’s interest in country music, and to hear Cecil personally declare it he would say, “I was Hankin’ ever since!” From then on he listened to Hank on the radio station WSFA in Montgomery. When Cecil was 11, Hank was appearing at the Lightwood Community in Elmore County for a show. He changed a tire for Hank that night, and later he dedicated a song to the Lightwood flat fixers. In 1952, one week before Hank Williams passed away, Cecil rotated and balanced the tires on Hank’s 1952 baby blue Cadillac. From then on, his love for Hank’s music grew into a dream of what is now the Hank Williams Museum. His dream finally came true on February 8, 1999, with the opening of the Museum in Montgomery, where Montgomery served as president of the Hank Williams Memorial Foundation Montgomery.
Cecil’s daughter, Beth Petty, became the museum’s manager in1999 because of her father’s influence and love for this great legend. She spent most of her life listening to country music, especially Hank Williams. In 1976 she realized a dream her father had while observing him sort through old records, books, and yellowed newspapers. She and her husband, Jeff, have been operating the museum for the past thirteen years, and continue to do a magnificent job.
Hank Williams’ career began at the age of 14 by winning a talent show at the Empire Theater in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937 with his original tune “WPA Blues.” The rest is musical history. Containing the most complete collection of memorabilia, the official Hank Williams Museum is located in downtown Montgomery, where Hank lived from 1937 to 1953. Hank’s first professional debut was in Montgomery and his final public performance was also there, at a musicians’ union meeting on December 28, 1952, at the Elite (pronounced E-light) Cafe on Montgomery Street.
Among many other artifacts related to Hank Williams, the museum houses the light blue Cadillac in which he was riding on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio, in the early hours of 1953. When the 17-year-old driver, Charles Carr, now a successful Montgomery businessman, was pulled over for speeding, the police officer noted the passenger in the back seat appeared deceased. When they rushed Hank to a West Virginia hospital, the singer was pronounced dead at 7:00 a.m. on January 1, 1953, at just 29 years of age. Hank Williams was laid to rest three days later in Montgomery with a record crowd in attendance. A statue of Hank stands across the street from the City Auditorium, where the funeral took place.
There are also other special events at the museum and the gravesite at the Oakwood Annex cemetary, most notably the annual New Year’s Eve commemoration of Hank’s death and celebration of his life, as well as his birthday celebration each mid-September. For more information on The Hank Williams Museum, be sure to visit their website. No visit to Montgomery would ever be complete without a visit to the Hank Williams Museum.
Roger ”Hurricane” Wilson is a contributing writer at BluesWax. He is also a nationally-known singer-songwriter. His latest release is a live album with the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith entitled Protected by Smith & Wilson.
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