Story and photos by Emmett Burnett
Approaching Georgiana on I-65 North is an overpass bridge sign with a message: “Lost Highway.” The words pay homage to a local boy who made good – Hiram Williams. He changed his name to Hank and became “The Shakespeare of Country Music.”
Many towns claim Hank Williams and have a story to tell. Ready to visit some of the places country music’s superstar called home? Let’s ride.
We start where Hank did, in tiny Mount Olive. The third child of Jessie Lillybelle “Lillie” and Elonzo Huble Williams was born on Sept. 17, 1923 in a log house no longer with us. He was born with spina bifida, rendering constant back pain that in later life triggered a drugs and alcohol dependence.
But at Mount Olive West Baptist Church, a love for gospel music was nurtured. Years later Hank wrote and recorded gospel songs inspired by his church, such as “I Saw the Light” – inscribed on his tombstone.
The family moved to Greenville and later, a few miles south to Garland. Mom Lillie opened boarding houses and took side jobs to support her family. Hank’s father was mostly absent from the boy’s life due to a brain aneurysm and eight years of hospitalization in Alexandria, La.
In 1934 the mom relocated her family to Georgiana. Their first house and everything they owned burned in a fire. Their second residence was 127 Rose St., today the Hank Williams Sr. Boyhood Home and Museum.
“Hank’s mother ran boarding houses and this was one of her first,” says Leona Simmons, the home’s tour guide of 26 years, as we walk through halls chock-full of Williams’ memorabilia including a guitar he and Elvis Presley played.
The family, visitors, and boarders enjoyed the home’s four fireplaces, running water, electricity, and an outdoor toilet. Regardless of the home’s amenities or lack thereof, Georgiana was a turning point.
“Hank received his first musical instrument, a harmonica, at about age 6,” the Georgiana house tour guide notes. “He performed in church. Mom played organ and dad played the juice harp.” Hank Williams also worked – a lot.
As a boy, he shined shoes, sold peanuts on the streets, and at age 8, received his first guitar, a gift from his mom, purchased from Sears and Roebuck.
He befriended a Georgiana street performer, Rufus “Teetot” Payne, who taught young Hank how to play guitar. “They held lessons under Hank’s house,” says Simmons, “because Payne, a black man, felt he would be in trouble if seen with a young white boy following him all over town.”
Looking back as an adult, Williams recalled Rufus Payne as “my only teacher.” By age 10 the youngster was singing and performing in local parties and winning talent contests. “He never had a little boy voice,” Simmons adds. “What you hear on his records is how he sounded as a teenager.”
The singer’s career advanced when the family moved to Montgomery in 1937. “They moved here for a better life and opportunities in a bigger city,” says Erica Parker, spokesperson for the Hank Williams Museum on 118 Commerce St. “He performed on the street in front of WSFA Radio.”
Station managers were so impressed, they brought the street singer in to perform and later to host his own radio program – for pay. Hank was now a professional singer, making enough money to form a backup band, the Drifting Cowboys. At the age of 16, he dropped out of Sidney Lanier High School.
“He was a genius in writing and recording music,” Simmons says. “Hank once told his band, ‘Boys I got a new song. Y’all ain’t going to have a problem with it. Now give me something.” And they did, often recording on the first try.
Williams was famous for saying, “If a song can’t be written in 20 minutes, it ain’t worth writing.”
An emerging country star
During World War II most of his band joined the military; Hank could not, due to health issues. For his contribution to the war effort, the singing songwriter took a job as a shipyard worker in Mobile. He also sang for U.S. soldiers.
At age 21 in 1944, the emerging star merged in marriage with Audrey Sheppard in an Andalusia ceremony at John G. Wright Sr.’s Automotive Garage. The couple’s relationship was best described as “turbulent.”
Before divorcing in 1952, they had one son, Randall Hank Williams Jr. Also in 1952, Hank Sr. married Billie Jean Jones. Between his two marriages, in a relationship with Bobbie Jett, a daughter was born, Jett Williams (Antha Belle Jett). The dad never met his daughter as she was born Jan. 6, 1953, five days after he died.
Concert tours expanded, including Greenville, Birmingham, and beyond. After being rejected once, Hank successfully auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry. His first appearance on Nashville’s iconic stage was June 11, 1949. He rceived 6 encores – a first for the Opry. He was 26 years old.
But back home he was still Hank. “We sensed his talent and abilities,” says a second cousin, Georgiana’s June S. Whittle. “But when he visited us, he was family.”
During Christmas week of 1952 Hank Williams visited the family for the holidays one last time. “We all attended church Sunday night,” Whittle recalls. “After the service Hank sang gospel songs for friends and church members.” With Christmas drawing to a close, he said goodbye.
Dec. 31, 1952: Driving to Canton, Ohio for a New Year’s Day concert, Williams sat in the back seat of his chauffeured, powder-blue Cadillac. He was very sick.
In predawn hours of Jan. 1, 1953, the driver stopped at Oak Hill, W.Va., to refuel. Hank’s driver, college student Charles Carr, assumed his passenger was asleep when he checked him at the gas station. But Williams was motionless in the back seat, unresponsive, and at the age of 29, dead.
Autopsy results confirmed a combination of medications and alcohol contributed to his demise.
Today the 1952 Cadillac is in Montgomery’s Hank Williams Museum. “People can’t believe this is the car he died in,” says museum director Beth Petty. “About 30,000 people a year visit to see it.”
Hank Williams’ funeral was held in Montgomery, with an estimated 25,000 mourners viewing the casket. It is the largest funeral in Alabama’s history. He is buried at Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery Annex.
“People visit his grave daily from all over the world,” says Oakwood’s sexton, Phillip Taunton. “Many leave mementos like flowers, guitar pics, and bottles of beer.”
Williams is remembered as one of the greatest country music writers and singers of all time. During a five-year career he recorded 225 songs, of which 128 he wrote. Locally he is remembered annually in Georgiana’s Hank Williams Festival in June. This year’s festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, but organizers plan to be back in 2021.
“His lyrics relate to the people in our area,” says festival board member Judy Black. “People relate to him, even after all these years.” You never forget his voice, his words, and his music. You never forget Hank Williams.