What would the world of music sound like if we disappeared the legacy of Hank Williams? Would country music have made as big of a mark as it did back in Hank’s day and thereafter, and still be around today as one of the most popular genres of music? How would it affect rock, the blues, and all of popular music? These are the deep questions that the Centennial of the birth of Hank Williams allows us to ponder.
100 years ago today, September 17th, 1923, Hank Williams was born to humble means in the small rural community of Mount Olive, Alabama. He learned to sing in a little church there, and was raised in the town of Georgiana from 1930 to 1934 where his boyhood home is still preserved as a museum. Hank also lived in Greenville Alabama from 1934 to 1937. Then it was on to the big city for Hank, which in Central Alabama is Montgomery.
Montgomery, Alabama is where Hank Williams began his career in earnest. It’s where he continued to be taught by his mentor Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. It’s also where he would be buried in 1953 at the age of 29 after dying tragically in the back of his powder blue Cadillac that sits in the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery.
Sunday morning, September 17th, ceremonial wreaths were laid at the grave of Hank Williams at the Oakwood Cemetery commemorating the moment of his birth. Hundreds gathered to hear multiple speakers and songs under the cloudy skies that ceased raining for the occasion. The granddaughter of Hank Williams and critically-acclaimed songwriter/performer Holly Williams was in attendance, along with Leona Williams, Zachariah Malachi who was scheduled to perform later in the day, and multiple other performers.
Holly Williams who now lives in Montgomery was there with her four children, and addressed the crowd on behalf of the Hank Williams family.
“Of all the things that Hank brought to this world is unity and harmony,” Holly said. “I love seeing literally all walks of life here, people from everywhere, who think different, listen to different music, from all over the world, from all different places, young and old, and the joy that he brought to all of us, and the harmony and the community he brought through simple, plain English that touched all our hearts. The Hillbilly Shakespeare as they called him.”
Holly also explained how Sam Williams was in Nashville performing Saturday at the Grand Ole Opry to represent the Williams family, and her sister and fellow performer Hilary was also in Nashville with Sam. Holly also said she knew a lot of people were fans of his brother Hank Williams III who has been quite reclusive as of late. She said Hank3 was doing well, and that she was closer to him now more than ever before.
A funny moment ensued when Holly explained why her father Hank Williams Jr. was not there. Bocephus was recently married and is currently on his honeymoon, and one of Holly’s kids couldn’t resist saying how many times her grandfather had been married.
The event commenced at about 9:00 AM Sunday morning, and was hosted by Jeff and Beth Petty of the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. The museum was founded 25 years ago by Cecil and Betty Jackson. Betty unfortunately passed away earlier this week.
Arnold Sheppard—who is related to Hank’s widow Audrey Sheppard Williams, performed multiple songs with his grandsons Morgan Brown and Weston Brown, including “(I’m Gonna) Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and of course “I Saw The Light,” which concluded the ceremony.
The 100th Anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams was just observed at the Hank Williams Grave and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Many friends, fans, and family gathered to mark the Hank Williams Centennial.— Saving Country Music (@KyleCoroneos) September 17, 2023
Much more to come… pic.twitter.com/geWjCDYVy5
David Azbell also read and presented an official proclamation from the Alabama legislature, honoring Hank Williams on the occasion of his 100th birthday. It was only due to the legislature being in special session that Azbell was able to get the proclamation secured. His father Joe Azbell had reported on the Hank Williams funeral, and was initially reprimanded from running a special edition of the paper. When the edition sold out multiple times, he ended up being promoted.
Local religious leader Rabbi Ben was also there to offer a prayer and a Hank Williams story. When people ask him why a Jewish Rabbi participates in so many Christian-based events, he tells them, “Like Hank Williams, I saw the light.”
The festivities on Sunday came in a long line of commemorations marking the birth of Hank Williams. On the 50th Anniversary of Hank’s birth in (1973), Audrey Williams ordered 20 dozen roses to be delivered to Hank’s grave. On the 75th Anniversary of Hank’s birth (1998), the Country Music Hall of Fame unveiled a bronze statue of Hank Williams. In attendance were Hank’s two children, Hank Williams Jr. and Jett Williams. This is the first time the two met in person.
Hank’s legacy is still going strong in Alabama and beyond. Driving up to Montgomery from Greenville and Georgiana, you take the Hank Williams Memorial “Lost” Highway— the nickname given to both Interstate 65, as well as Highway 31, which is the actual highway that Hank drove. This is where you can feel the ghost of Hank Williams if you drive it on a foggy night, just like the night of September 16th, 2023 was. If you listen to the Hank tribute song “The Ride,” you will especially feel a chill.
The memorial at the Hank Williams grave was part of scores of events all across the world marking the Hank Williams Centennial, including performances in Montgomery at the Davis Theater on Sunday headlined by Gene Watson. The Country Music Hall of Fame will also hold an event on Thursday, September 21st.