Side Order: An Alabama museum seeks to polish a singer-songwriter's star

By Laura Stassi Jeffrey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 1, 2010; 2:02 PM

Unless you're a hard-core music fan, you probably don't think of country star Hank Williams as a Pulitzer-worthy songwriter who influenced generations of musicians who followed. Williams's legacy has been overshadowed not only by the story of his own flameout but also by his son, Hank Jr., whose "Are You Ready for Some Football?" roar before televised games became an audio icon.

But the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala., is busy burnishing the late singer-songwriter's image. Housed in a hundred-year-old brick building in the historic downtown district, it showcases more than 2,000 items related to the self-described hillbilly music man - who, indeed, received a posthumous citation from the Pulitzer Prize board in April.

Most of the museum's items were amassed by Montgomery resident Cecil Jackson, who opened the museum in 2000. Jackson was a child when he first met Williams, and he became a lifelong fan. As a teenager, he even changed the tires on Williams's 1952 Cadillac before the singer-songwriter embarked on his final gig. Jackson died in March, but Beth Petty, his daughter and the museum manager, has assumed the family mantle.

Through newspaper clippings, photographs, recordings and even household furnishings, the museum tells the story of Williams's life: how he was born in Mount Olive but moved to Montgomery as a teenager with his mother and sister and started calling himself Hank instead of his given name, Hiram; how his boyhood friendship with street musician Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne helped sharpen his songwriting sensibilities; how a teenage Hank entered a talent show and bought his first guitar with the $15 prize he won; and how he landed a radio show and formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys, becoming a popular - though increasingly unreliable - performer.

On the walls of the museum hang vinyl records representing songs Williams churned out in his brief but prolific career. He began recording in the mid-1940s; his first big hit was 1947's "Move It On Over," which was famously covered in 1978 by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Artists as varied as Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, the Grateful Dead and Norah Jones also have recorded Williams's songs. His hits include "Hey Good Lookin', " "Cold, Cold Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Jambalaya," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "You Win Again" and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)."

Display cases in the museum hold boots and hand-painted designer suits that Williams wore when he performed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He made his official debut in June 1949 at age 25, but he was already drinking heavily, abusing medication prescribed for constant back pain and fighting with Audrey, his wife, manager, sometime singing partner, muse for many of his heartbreak songs and Hank Jr.'s mom. Williams was fired from the Opry in 1952, a few months after he and Audrey divorced. He would remarry almost immediately, but not before fathering a child with another woman he met along the way.

The museum's showpiece is the baby-blue Cadillac where a drunk and drugged-out Williams died in the back seat sometime late on New Year's Eve or early on New Year's Day 1953, as he was being driven to a concert gig in Ohio. The official cause of death was heart failure; Williams was just 29. A placard notes that the car has been fully restored. It's on loan from Hank Jr., who was a toddler when his daddy died and drove the car as a high school student. And if you're curious about what Williams was wearing when he died in that back seat, those clothes also are on display, along with the hotel and restaurant bills from the last day of his life.

Also here are photographs and newspaper clippings of Williams's funeral. Almost 30,000 mourners lined the city streets and stood outside the Montgomery Municipal Auditorium, where services for the singer-songwriter were held. He was buried in nearby Oakwood Cemetery, but a couple of weeks later, ex-wife Audrey had his body dug up and reinterred in a larger plot in the cemetery's annex. (No word on what Williams's legal widow had to say about that.) Today, Audrey and Hank are buried together there.

At the time of my visit to the museum, Beth Petty has not yet created a permanent display about the Pulitzer citation, but she enthusiastically shows me a copy of the Pulitzer board's press release. It states that after surveying a variety of music experts, the board has singled out Williams for a posthumous special citation for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who "expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity, and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life."

While Williams tunes play on a Wurlitzer jukebox near the museum's entrance and visitors watch a documentary unspooling in a small side room, Petty notes that the museum already attracts more than 20,000 visitors a year. She predicts that the Pulitzer citation will draw even more people to learn about an influential songwriter whose demons inspired him, but tragically got the best of him.

Jeffrey is a freelance writer and the author of several books for young readers.

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