Making the Hank Williams Pilgrimage to Montgomery
Undoubtedly, when it comes to sightseeing and experiencing the rich history of country music in all of its various forms, Nashville, Tennessee is the place to be. As Waylon Jennings once said, “It’s the home of country music, on that we all agree.” The Ryman Auditorium, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, The Grand Ole Opry, the final resting places of many country stars, along with other attractions make Nashville the A1 destination in that regard.
But if there were any specific spot on this Earth that you could cite as a place to go and experience the magic and majesty of country music in its most potent and shiver-inducing forms, without hesitation, any and all who’ve been there would cite the final resting place of Hank Williams in Montgomery, Alabama as the ultimate destination.
Well beyond any other burial site of any other star—or any other historically significant country music spot for that matter—there is just something about the story and the tragedy of Hank Williams that makes the piece of land where he’s interred hold a weight unlike any other.
Multitudes of songs have been written by country artists on this very subject. Alan Jackson had a major hit with one called “Midnight in Montgomery” about visiting Hank’s grave specifically. There may not be a more haunting song in the history of country music than J. B. Detterline and Gary Gentry’s “The Ride” recorded by David Allan Coe about encountering Hank’s ghost on the road from Montgomery.
The mystique surrounding Hank Williams and everything about him is so thick, it takes on a mythological status. There are many stars of past and present in country music. But there is only one Hank.
Many years previous, I had made a stop by the grave when traveling through Montgomery. But it was at a time in life where my appreciation of Hank Williams (or country music for that matter) wasn’t at the same level as it is today. One requisite to feel the magic of this place is a reverence and understanding of the importance of Hank Williams to country music on a fundamental level. But one of the remarkable things about the Hank Williams grave is that it can confer a deeper appreciation for country music and Hank’s indelible contributions to it simply from being there.
The burial spot of Hank Williams isn’t the only place in Montgomery where you can feel Hank’s presence, retrace his footsteps, and discover the true meaning behind his music, and bask in the mystery that was his life though.
To get the full breath of the Hank experience, the first stop—and one many people skip—is to pay respects to Hank’s mentor, teacher, and the man who taught him how to play music and entertain an audience, Mr. Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. The Black blues street performer followed Hank and his family from Georgiana to Montgomery when they moved to the city. Previously Tee-Tot had spent years in New Orleans learning blues music and performing in clubs and for high society members.
“Tee-Tot” was ironic nickname, short for “teetotaler.” Payne was known to enjoy a mixture of tea and whatever alcohol beverage he could procure at any hour of the day. Hank mother Lillie would feed Tee-Tot in exchange for guitar lessons for Hank. Payne imparted the blues-based style of Hank’s music to the young man.
When Rufus Payne passed away on March 17, 1939 at the age of 56, he was interred at the Lincoln Cemetery in Montgomery, which was a segregated cemetery for Black members of the Montgomery community. As opposed to marble or granite, headstones and graves were made of concrete. Prominent members of Black Montgomery society and soldiers may receive better-marked graves. But as a street performer, Tee-Tot was buried in an unmarked plot at the back of the cemetery.
However, in 2001 the Alabama Historical Association erected a plaque at the front for the cemetery commemorating Rufus Payne, and his contributions to the Hank Williams legacy. Hank Williams Jr. and members of the Grand Ole Opry also paid for an obelisk-style gravestone/memorial was also erected at the front of Lincoln Cemetery. Other notables of Montgomery’s Black community also have plaques throughout the cemetery.
In downtown Montgomery, the locations notable to the Hank Williams legacy are numerous. One important spot is Chris’ Famous Hot Dogs at 138 Dexter Ave. One of those landmark establishments that numerous President’s have stopped into eat at when it town, it’s been around since 1917, and was reportedly one of Hank’s favorite places to eat.
What’s cool about Chris’ is that you can still stop in and grab a hot dog or hamburger just like Hank did back in the day. The place comes full of “character” as you can expect. While there, a woman celebrating her 95th birthday was sitting at the tiny and cramped front counter. Chris’s is where she wanted to spend her birthday. It’s that kind of place. She ended up collapsing off the stool, and left in an ambulance. The waitress who was serving that day had been working there for 45 years.
Another notable location is the Elite Cafe at 121 Montgomery St., now called the D’Road Cafe, which serves Venezuelan-style food. This is where Hank Williams stopped in days before his death and gave his last official performance. The American Federation of Musicians was having their annual meeting at the location on December 28th, 1952, and Hank stopped in to perform a few songs. Hank’s last official “show” happened at the Skyline Club in Austin, TX on December 19th, 1952.
There is a statue to Hank Williams located at 216 Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery, which is certainly cool to see, if not exactly historically significant like the other locations (it was erected in 1991). But one of the cool things about a trip to downtown Montgomery is how much history and and memorializing there is.
You also get a strong sense of just how much race played a role in the city. Montgomery is where the Confederate States of America was first formed, and was named the first capital, with Jefferson Davis taking the oath of office in the city before the capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia. Montgomery was also a major hub in the slave trade. It was also the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement.
Along with the Hank Williams statue, there is a statue to Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her place on the bus for white passengers in Montgomery became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. The Equal Justice Initiative building is right beside the Hank Williams Museum. A lot of people have surmised how Hank Williams may have viewed race himself. With his history with Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne from an early age who he always gave credit for being his teacher and mentor, Hank’s views on race may have been more open than most in Alabama from the ’30s into the early ’50s.
Any visit to Montgomery to hunt for the ghost of Hank Williams is incomplete without visiting the Hank Williams Museum at 118 Commerce Street. This is the location of the powder blue Cadillac convertible that Hank Williams died in the back of, along with all of the contents that were in the car at the time, as well as other major Hank Williams memorabilia, including his horse saddle, and the blonde Steinway upright piano that was in his house and can be seen in many pictures with his wife Audrey and a young Hank Jr., and other bits of memorabilia.
Stopping by on Sunday, February 12th, it was officially the museum’s 24th birthday. The day before, Hank Williams Jr. had stopped by with his daughter and performer Holly Williams to show Holly’s kids around. Word out of Montgomery is that Holly has permanently relocated to the city to raise her family in a location where her family’s legacy is so deeply rooted.
First opening in the Union Station building in downtown Montgomery in 1999, the Hank Williams Museum was one of the very first businesses to help revitalize the downtown corridor. As downtown Montgomery once again became a happening place, they moved to their current location just down the street.
The museum was founded by Cecil Jackson, who had his own numerous Hank Williams stories. When he was just a boy, Hank Williams pulled up to a small country store in a big car, and said to Cecil, “Boy, you want a Coke?” and proceeded to buy him one. Years later, Hank busted a flat in the Lightwood community near Montgomery. Cecil Jackson and some friends helped Hank with the tire, and Hank paid them back by shouting them out as the “Lightwood Flat Fixers” on his WSFA radio program out of Montgomery the next day.
Later Cecil Jackson was working at a tire shop when Hank’s famous powder blue Cadillac showed up. After putting the tires on, Cecil delivered the car back to Hank’s mother’s house, and where Hank departed on his fateful “Last Ride.” It’s the same Cadillac that still sits in the Hank Williams museum today. Cecil Jackson has since passed on, but his daughter Beth Petty and her husband Jeff still run the museum, and Cecil’s son Darrell Jackson also helps out. All three of them will talk your ear off about Hank Williams.
The boyhood home of Hank Williams still resides in Georgiana, Alabama, and it is open to the public as a museum. But the famous boarding house (and according to some accounts, whore house) run by Hank’s mother Lillie and where Hank lived for much of his life is no longer there. In it’s place at 350 N. McDonough St. is the Tucker Pecan Co. warehouse and store. Though nothing original stands there, it is still worth stopping by the corner of McDonough and Columbus to really get a perspective of just how close the Montgomery that Hank Williams lived in really was. From the location, you can see the Alabama State capitol, and it’s mere blocks from Hank’s final resting place.
But of course, all of these places pale in comparison to the importance of Hank’s grave itself. Pulling up to the Oakwood Cemetery annex just east of downtown, your body bristles with anticipation as you make your way up the hill. What is never illustrated in pictures well is how the Hank Williams memorial sits at one of the highest points in Montgomery, which helps add to its mystique. To the north, the earth falls away into a wooded and undeveloped portion of the city.
And then there it is, the twin towers of marble commemorating Hank Williams and his first wife Audrey, imposing but not gaudy, reverent but not idolic, and all of a sudden the insurmountable influence this one many had on American music as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” and in such a short period of time that ended tragically after 29 years washes over you, and very well may leave you weak-kneed. If you happen to be an artist yourself, it’s also likely to leave you infinitely inspired.
Due to the blues influence in his music and the poetry he evoked in his songs, Hank Williams isn’t just a legend in country music. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is recognized worldwide as an important man in music. Those making their way to the Hank Williams grave don’t just include country fans or even Americans. It includes all fans of music, and all the rich artistic expressions of humans that withstand the test of time, and influence culture in fundamental ways.
The presence of Audrey Williams in equal form with Hank has been criticized by some, especially since they were divorced at the time of Hank’s death. But even Audrey’s biggest critics when it comes to her lack of talent will tell you that if it wasn’t for Audrey, Hank may have never been able to keep himself upright enough to become the superstar he was. And when Audrey left and broke Hank’s heart, she was the inspiration for some of his greatest songs.
The Astroturf interior of the memorial has also been questioned, but it certainly sets the memorial apart from the rest of the surrounding cemetery, and keeps it evergreen in photos. Hank’s mother Lillie is also buried right beside, along with other adjacent family members.
September 17th, 2023 will mark the 100th birthday of Hank Williams. The Hank Williams Museum is planning for a big shindig, as are others. If there was ever a time or year to finally make the trek to pay your respects to Hank, it might be this one.
But the magic of the Hank Williams Memorial will be eternal, as the legacy of what his music wrought only seems to grow over time as opposed to diminishing. Just like Hank’s music, it will be forevermore. And that’s why standing in its presence is so powerful.
February 15, 2023 @ 11:56 am
Curious of the best source to find all the Nashville landmarks/graves without doing a bunch of Google searches?
February 15, 2023 @ 12:23 pm
The book “Precious Memories” by Renae Johnson, also know as Renae the Waitress on “Larry’s Country Diner” is a pretty invaluable resource for graves. I have found some holes in it. But overall it’s great, and doesn’t just cover Nashville.
February 15, 2023 @ 1:21 pm
Woodlawn should definitely be a stop. Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones, Jerry Reed, Lynn Anderson, etc.
February 15, 2023 @ 5:41 pm
Apparently, there are a lot of Woodlawn Cemeteries. The only one I’ve been to is in the Bronx. It’s got Thomas Nast and Herman Melville and Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan and Duke Ellington and W.C. Handy and Miles Davis, as well as Joseph Pulitzer, R.H. Macy, J.C. Penney and F. W. Woolworth, among others.
February 15, 2023 @ 11:09 pm
Ugh, Herman Melville.
Would like to dig him up and kill him again. JUST kidding.
That atrocity of a book he wrote about Moby, was the worst read E V E R.
Didn’t read it until in my mid forties.
On a dare.
Mind you, love spearfishing and scuba. Have a huge love & respect for the sea.
However, Moby sucked. Or, more to the point, Captain Ahab.
Melville is one of the most overrated authors, to date.
Do however, like the works of Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis.
February 16, 2023 @ 2:11 am
I read Moby on my own. It was so long and there was so much in it that went over my head or right by me. I probably should have read it as part of a class, with a good teacher explaining the allusions.
The only thing I remember from it was the shipmate named Starbuck, who drank coffee. I saw the movie as a kid. Richard Basehart floating in the wide open water holding on to a piece of flotsam. It was much better.
February 16, 2023 @ 9:45 am
Looked up the movie you are talking about, with Richard Basehart, as Ishmael.
Good grief – what a cast.
John Huston directed, with Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, etc.
Can actually watch this movie, free on-line.
Rolling my eyes knowing i’m going to do it, if for no other reason than you said the movie is much better than the book.
Daresay that if we waded through Moby one more time, we’d probably get a lot more out of it.
February 16, 2023 @ 7:58 pm
I hear a lot of people say this but it sounds crazy to me. It’s probably my favorite novel and definitely the one I’ve read then ost number of times. Almost always finding some new perspective. Currently my opinion is that the whale represents God and that Ahab is the incarnation of humanity’s rage over being placed in a world that seems to be full of random savagery. An anti-Abraham or perhaps a Job whose faith failed him. Of course interpretations vary.
Was it the long sections about the anatomy and taxonomy of whales that threw you off or maybe the paragraph long sentences? They are a lot to get through. Even if the whole book isn’t for you I would encourage anyone to take a look at some selections as many parts stand alone very well. The section titled “On The Whiteness Of The Whale” is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of writing in English, ever.
February 16, 2023 @ 11:52 pm
Am tempted to write an abbreviated thesis on Moby.
Title it – Why Moby Is Pissed At Ahab.
Set it to iambic pentameter.
To ram or not to ram, that is the question.
(As pondered by Moby)
February 15, 2023 @ 1:18 pm
When I visited, I first parked in the other part of the cemetery up the hill. I was the only person there.
I also drove to Georgiana but missed the 3pm closing of his boyhood museum.
There’s also a monument near Hank and Audrey to 78 Royal Air Force members – training exercise.
February 16, 2023 @ 9:21 pm
Ok, I’ll bite …
All of the allusions, allegories, symbolism, etc. lots & lots to slog through.
And, yes, the butchering and rendering of the whale went on – F O R E V E R.
The reason read it, the whole challenge/dare started when I was talking to my boyfriend’s brother, Glenn.
Glenn was a technical writer in Albany, N.Y. at the time.
I was at UVM, in Burlington, VT. up to here – in nuclear physics, immunology, etc.
Glenn & I were wondering what the other was currently reading.
Turns out, had walked to the Lake Placid library, in several inches of snow ( : D you know, superstar nuclear student through the week, music groupie, on the weekends) looked at the librarian, and said HELP, need a totally ridiculous beach read.
She said, “Honey have I got just the thing.”
She walks us over to the Janet Evanovich section – Stephanie Plum series.
Have been hooked, since. The books are mindless, stupid, hilarious, fun.
That night, after the usual fabulous love making, quietly reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. Started reading.
A short time later busted out laughing.
Ronnie sleepily rolls over, asking, “What the he**’s so funny?” Couldn’t stop laughing.
Turns out his solution to get me to pipe down was a couple more orgasms. (That was always his solution for everything) then he would carry me into the kitchen & whip up a gourmet omelet for us, at 2:30 in the morning. We would take ice cold pineapple chunks back to bed with us for dessert.
God I miss him … Seriously.
But alas, he was a tortured arteest (Extremely talented) & had we gotten married we would have killed each other.
So anyway, told Glenn, “Going to bring you a book from this killer series by Evanovich, and I dare you to read it.”
He said, “Ok, and at the same time, I’m going to give you my copy of Moby Dick, and I double dog dare you to read it.”
Was all like, Oh, Hell No – i am NOT going to read Moby.
By the time we got to quadruple dares, we were both dug in.
And that’s how came to suffer through that infernal Moby.
Did you know that Moby Dick, actually had its roots in Mocha Dick, a real live whale?
Going to make you look that up.
And p.s. i Love whale song
February 16, 2023 @ 9:23 pm
*Oops – that was meant as a response to Ryan S, post.
February 18, 2023 @ 3:13 am
Will be there in September
Sir Adam the Great
February 15, 2023 @ 2:49 pm
My family stopped by to see Hank’s grave on the way to PCB one year. I couldn’t stop thinking, “wow, this is where Alan Jackson filmed that video.”
February 15, 2023 @ 3:14 pm
I live in Alabama and when first moved here 24 yrs ago it was my first stop since I was only 60 miles away. It makes you shiver. Contemplate,leave a guitar pick, and remember!
February 15, 2023 @ 4:28 pm
Surprised they haven’t replaced the monument since “Kaw-Liga” (an awesome song) is on it.
Great write-up, Trigger. If you don’t like Hank, you don’t like country music.
I am nearing Hank’s age when he died. It is a sobering thought.
February 15, 2023 @ 6:30 pm
“The Ride” vs “Midnight in Montgomery” which is the best Hank ghost song? I personally have to go with “The Ride” the line “The world calls me HANK!” is great & timeless. I have heard that J. B. Detterline, Jr. & Gary Gentry always envisioned Bocephus to be the one to cover the song but David Allan Coe managed to get his hands on it first, don’t know how true that is, but thought it was worth passing along. D.A.C. also had “The Ghost of Hank Williams” which he penned himself & is an underrated gem.
February 15, 2023 @ 6:45 pm
I’d say “The Ride” is the best without a doubt, both for the cleverness with how it’s done and also because it came first. My instant reaction on hearing the Jackson song was that it was derivative of “The Ride”–and I’d bet that most anybody else who was famiiar with the D.A.C. single had the same feeling.
If Hank Jr. had done “The Ride,” it would have killed the whole build-up and surprise element that Coe masterfully brought out.
February 16, 2023 @ 9:06 am
A vote for “The Ride” as well. But my favorite Hank “tribute” songs are “I Get A Longing (To Hear Hank Sing the Blues)” by Jimmy Murphy and “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” (love both the Jerry Jeff Walker version from Gruene Hall or the Sunny Sweeney version).
February 16, 2023 @ 4:12 pm
@Mars — I’ll take “The Ride,” but One of my favorite Hank (and Lefty) tributes is “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” by Stoney Edwards. Stoney’s vocal was so good that had me going (even if he didn’t write it), that he grew up singing along to Hank and Lefty on Daddy’s car radio when he was 10 years old.
I later realized that the song was fictional (at least from Stoney’s perspective) as I saw on the Internet that Stoney was born in 1929, making him 6 years and a few months younger than Hank Williams and not even 2 years younger than Frizzell!
February 17, 2023 @ 2:09 am
@Lucky – hard to argue with that pick, and thanks to Trig and SCM for bringing Stoney to my attention with the great feature article from last year. Further on the subject of Hank tributes, I’ll add plugs for both “Rollin’ and Ramblin’ (The Death of Hank Williams)” — Emmylou version — along with “The Conversation” by Waylon and Hank Jr., if only for the great spoken asides exchanged between the two and the typically awesome Reggie Young guitar solo that brings the song into the fade.
February 27, 2023 @ 9:55 am
I love both songs but I’m going to give a shout out to Ashley Monroe’s “Hank’s Cadillac”.
February 15, 2023 @ 7:26 pm
If I go, you’d better believe i’d go at Midnight.
February 16, 2023 @ 9:46 pm
I didn’t include this in the story because I haven’t been there at midnight myself, but I noticed that there was a flood light at the edge of the cemetery that appears to illuminate it at night. Also, unlike 90% of cemeteries, there is no gate that gets locked every night, or visitation hours posted. It almost seems like they’re encouraging folks to come at night, which is completely different from just about every cemetery.
February 15, 2023 @ 8:18 pm
The thing that has always impressed me the most about Hank Williams is the impressive catalog of songs he wrote before dying at the very young age of 29.
February 16, 2023 @ 5:59 am
April 5, 1998, I attended the George Strait Country Music Festival in Birmingham.
The next morning visited the grave of Hank in Montgomery, the same day Tammy died.
Went from a high with George, to somber from Hank to total blubbering for Tammy.
February 16, 2023 @ 7:05 am
It is such a pleasure to read your ‘Random Notes’, and this one is especially “special” not only because of the wonderfully informative aspect (complete with photos) that take us right there, but because we can feel how moved you are by being able to personally be there at this stage in your life. Enjoy the rest of your road trip homeward from Florida. You are soooo deserving for sure!
February 16, 2023 @ 8:45 am
Great write up Trigger. I was stationed at ft. Stewart, GA. Early 1967, hitch hiked to Montgomery, because I wanted to visit ol Hanks grave. Glad I did it.
February 16, 2023 @ 11:15 am
Are any of the house’s Hank grew up in, still around?
February 16, 2023 @ 11:27 am
Yes, his boyhood home in Georgiana, Alabama is still around and gives tours.
February 17, 2023 @ 10:13 am
As is his house at 10 Stuart Ave in Montgomery. It’s the ghetto now, but the house is still there.
February 16, 2023 @ 2:55 pm
In Hank Jr ‘s book “Living Proof”, he mentions to get to the grave, you go down a road with seven bridges. Obviously, Steve Young was a Hank disciple, too.
February 16, 2023 @ 3:07 pm
Interesting. I know “Seven Bridges Road” is about an area near Montgomery, but I’ve never seen it officially linked to the grave.
A. Michael Uhlmann
February 17, 2023 @ 5:04 am
Trigger there is a road around Montgomery that is called – maybe just by the locals – Seven Bridges Road. Not really sure if it runs from Georgiana to the cemetery as some lore now claims. But Steve told me in a radio interview, that yes he went to Montgomery to get over a relationship and visited Hank’s grave, and came up with “Seven Bridges Road.”
When I went there in 95, we couldn’t really find the origins of the road, but that was almost 30 years after the song was written.
When he later recorded “Rock, Salt & Nails,” which is else almost all covers, including Hank Williams’ “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around,” he recorded it almost out of happenstance. as they rang out of songs to record and that the producer Tom LiPuma had to admit that’s quite a good song.
To all the youngsters here who may have never heard of Steve Young – this is a seminal album that every Country fan should have.
February 16, 2023 @ 3:52 pm
Damn! Kyle! The city of Montgomery should pay you… what a great travel brochure knock out!
Disciple of Merle
February 17, 2023 @ 11:41 am
Thanks for such a detailed report, Trigger.
February 18, 2023 @ 3:27 am
Well reported information we are coming over in September from the uk doing a southern music tour starting in Montgomery Alabama then New Orleans then Memphis then Nashville I really hope to see hanks grave and museum hope there’s not a time on visiting
February 18, 2023 @ 4:47 pm
My favorite song about visiting Hank’s grave https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc_WuJ0iJe4
February 21, 2023 @ 10:38 pm
“She ended up collapsing off the stool, and left in an ambulance.” I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. Hope she pulled through.