'Hank was a great Alabamian'

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The Yankee newspapers called Hank Williams a “hillbilly star.”

Now, decades later, the native Alabamian is regarded as one of the best, if not the most brilliant star in the music industry. His music is the same as it was before his death on Jan. 1, 1953, but now he is labeled as pure genius.

According to Margaret Gaston, a Georgiana historian, Hank was born Sept. 17, 1923, close to the  Mount Olive West Baptist Church, near Garland, AL in Butler County. Hank’s father, Lon Williams was engineer on Engine No. 14, one of two log trains operated by W. T. Chapman Lumber Co.

By the time Hank was six years old the family was living in McWilliams, in Wilcox County. Hank entered first grade at McWilliams. Shortly thereafter, Lon was admitted to the VA hospital in Alexandria, Lousiana.

Hank’s mother Lillie moved the family to Georgiana.

Williams lived for several years in Georgiana. For the past 41 years the city has honored him with a festival named in his honor. In 2020, due to the Covid-19, the festival had to be canceled. But the festival organizers have made plans for an even bigger and better event in 2021.

According to Irene Williams, Hank’s older sister, Lillie, had found a small house she planned to rent south of town. “We were on the way to the post office to mail a letter, when a man walked up and said, “I’m Thaddeus Rose and I have a house you are welcome to live in rent free until you are able to get on your feet.” Irene recalled.

The house at 127 Rose Street in Georgiana was more than enough for the Williams family, and Lillie was able to take in boarders to help pay the rent and feed her family. This building, which was purchased by the City of Georgiana, now houses the Hank Williams Museum.

Hank shined shoes and sold peanuts on the downtown streets and at the busy L & N Railroad depot. He met TeeTot (Rufus Payne), an old black man while in Georgiana. TeeTot rode the freight trains, and would sometimes play guitar and sing in the depot. Hank was always following him around, begging him to teach him more about picking the guitar.

The family lived in Georgiana for four years. Lillie moved the family to Greenville, a larger town about 30 miles north, in 1934 or 1935, then on to Montgomery.

Hank continued selling peanuts and shining shoes in Montgomery, but by this time he often carried his guitar with him. He would set up in front of WSFA, selling and singing. Before long he was brought into the studio to sing. This was in 1937, or early 1938.

Pee Wee Moultrie, an accordion player, was one of the earliest band members.

“I was working with a small band in 1939 and we had gone to Montgomery to play on the radio (WCOA),” said Moultrie. “While we were in there I noticed a couple fellows watching me.

“It turned out they were Hank Williams and Hezzey Adair, and they were looking for a couple musicians.

“It wasn’t too long after that, the band's name was changed to Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys. Hezzey continued to play with us, but his name was dropped. I’m not sure, but I think he had another job, and it had something to do with that.

“We hardly survived. If it hadn’t been for Hank’s mother putting us up in her boarding house in Montgomery and feeding us, we couldn’t have made it. We didn’t make enough money to buy toothpaste.

“We played schools, churches, and theaters. I’ll bet we played every school in the state. We even played in cow pastures. Once, we played at Camp Kilby, the prison outside Mt. Meigs.”

Jimmy Porter was still attending Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, when he went to work for Hank. The year was 1941. He was 13 years old. That made Porter the youngest full-time member of the Drifting Cowboys. Porter was often billed as "the steel guitar wizard.”

“Hank was one of the finest people to work with, I’ve ever known,” said Porter. “He never got mad at you, he was just a cool fella, easy going, friendly, and would give you the shirt off his back.

“I never saw him take a drink, and I know what his book says, but I worked with him for four years, and I never saw him drunk.

“The second job I played with him was Thigpen’s Log Cabin. The front part was the service station. The honky-tonk part was on the side. It was a rough place, but it wasn’t rough on the inside. All the rough stuff went on outside.

“We worked out of Montgomery, and really, we weren’t doing all that much playing. I was in high school, so we would play maybe one or two nights a week. Maybe we would go two or three weeks without playing, so that’s why he had so many Drifting Cowboys.

“We stayed friends until the day he died, and every time he came through Montgomery, he would call me. The last time I saw him alive was on the Hadacol show when it came to Montgomery in August, 1951. He was on the Pullman car and I talked with him for a long time, and he was doing fine.”

According to Don Helms, Hank’s former steel guitar player, Williams was trying to get his career back on track by proving to promoters that he could be sober and reliable. He had scheduled two shows; one in West Virginia, on Dec. 31 and the second in Canton, Ohio, on New Year's Day, 1953.

“I had left Hank and was playing for Ray Price’s band,” said Helms. “We had an off week, and the band had agreed to play for Hank at Canton.

“We were unable to fly out of Nashville due to it snowing and had to drive. As soon as we reached the auditorium in Canton, the promoter gave us the news of his death.”

Williams died at the age of 29, on January 1, 1953 in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

Like many artists that sing about the truth and sadness of life, his music had the ability to make you cry or smile. He left his prints in the red Alabama dirt, and in the hearts and soul of everyone that has heard his music.

The 42nd Annual Hank Williams Festival will be held June 4-5 on the grounds of the Hank Williams Music Park in Georgiana, AL.

For additional information, call 334-376-2396, or log on to: www.hankwilliamsfestival.com.