Over the last few weeks the vagaries of my job included driving back and forth from Birmingham, Alabama to the Florida Gulf Coast. Three different times. About five hours in each direction. It was on the first trip down I noticed a sign for the “Hank Williams Museum” on a highway in Butler County, south of Montgomery. I knew I had to stop.
There is some irony that it was in Australia about twenty years ago when someone made me listen to Old School country music. Growing up in the 60's and 70's in the burbs in the Northeast USA meant that, of course, I hated country music (that everyone listened to The Eagles, Poco and Gram Parsons not withstanding.) The person who made me listen was the weirdest man I ever met but he did me a huge favor. On his Harman-Kardon turntable we listened to The Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves. And Hank Williams.
Because the company I was in gave me zero reason to affect a musical prejudice I listened without it. And the songs made my hair stand on end. Who were these guys? I was familiar with some of the names, but knew very little of the music. And it was swimming in pain. Overwhelming pain. It was almost indecent to listen. And for these men what drove that pain was an epic struggle with Jesus.
During the 90's in Australia there was a wave of “New Australian Country”. Most of it was crap, and listening to an interview with one of its main spruikers I realized why. “We’re leaving out all that American religious stuff” was the basic message. He may as well have said, “We’re idiots because everything that lies at the heart of country music we find too embarrassing, so we’ll skip what birthed it, kept it going and produced its unqualified masters. And by the way we hope you don’t notice.” I did.
The conventional narrative is these men each in their own way oscillated between the Christian faith of their rural Southern upbringing and the excesses of stage, bottle and deeds of the flesh. I’d say their struggles hanging on to faith were not unusual at all. We notice them because they were also burdened with staggering musical genius in a time and place where that conflict played out in a way that strikes anyone removed from it as ludicrous and maybe a little silly.
Writing on the peculiarities of Southern culture, Flannery O’Connor noted, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” There was nothing aberrant about the way these men clung to Jesus at the same time being hounded by doubt, temptation and terror of the grave. How they gave it voice lifted them from normal obscurity and put those demons on permanent (and chillingly glorious) display. It is sublime, beautiful and heartbreaking. That I once dismissed it as redneck clatter is all the more reason for me to make up time.
So now you know why I had to follow that arrow on the highway sign. Left on Route 106 toward the tiny railroad town of Georgiana, boyhood home of Hank Williams. In a genre overcrowded with tragic heroes, Hank Williams heads the list. He died 29 years old on New Years Day 1953 from a mix of alcohol, morphine and the sedative chloral hydrate. In a 15 year period Williams basically invented a way of singing, playing and writing not even thought about before. Anyone who writes and sings about what is haunting, moving, confusing or inspiring them got it from Hank Williams. That did not exist before him. He was one of the first inductees of both the Country and Rock and Roll Hall Fame. His fingerprints are on every popular music form that exists. He was Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain before they were. Way, way before they were.
So I rolled down Alabama Route 106. From there it became like a scavenger hunt. The signage to the place was a little bizarre. The first week I arrived at a place that I presumed was the place, but it wasn’t the place. Second week I put the destination into my GPS and after executing several odd turns and five minutes on a dirt road, the phantom female voice announced, “You have arrived at your destination.” A double wide trailer with a collection of old washing machines, a DirecTV dish, and a man on the stoop drinking what appeared to be Kentucky Gentleman Bourbon. From the bottle. He did not appear overly concerned that a 2014 Nissan Altima (a rental) just pulled up his very, very long driveway. I gave him a nod that said, “It’s all good chief!” I took his blank stare to be a silent, “No problem friend! Take your time turning around or if you’re into economy of effort you could just hit reverse and navigate through your rear view mirror. And you’re welcome to a swallow of the Gentleman!” I gave him another nod. Then hit reverse.
On third and last attempt I found Georgiana and the museum. I spent most of the afternoon with curator Margaret Gaston, that type of Southern matriarch who is charming, wicked smart and completely aware visitors from outside the region think she’s not quite all there. And just doesn’t care.
I took some video. Actually a lot. Cut it down to three videos less than three minutes each because a friend of mine who does this sort of thing tells me most people won’t watch a video longer than that. I usually won’t.
Enjoy. Or otherwise.