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.

Graves in the segregated Lincoln 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.

Rufus Payne Memorial at the front of the Lincoln 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.

The tiny entrance to the left is the original Chris’ Famous Hot Dogs, though it now stretches partly into the building next door.

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.

D’Road Cafe where the Elite Cafe was located, and where Hank Williams gave his final performances

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.

Equal Justice Initiative building right beside the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery

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.

The former location of Hank’s home and his mother Lillie’s “boardinghouse”

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.

Inscription on the back of Hank’s gravestone
Inscription on the back of Audrey’s gravestone
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