Did Hank Really Do It This Way?

As a fan of Hank Williams from the time I was too young to really appreciate my own good tastes and as a native of Alabama, it’s a bit confounding that I had never visited Hank’s grave. I’m also a big fan of Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s essays and she speaks of the grave site as hallowed ground. Family recently bought a place in Montgomery, so I decided on a recent visit that the time had come to pay my respects.

Hank Williams’ Grave, Montgomery, Alabama
The grave story itself is interesting. Hank was married to his second wife when he died and she buried him in Oakwood Cemetery. Miss Audrey, his first wife, decided his body would be moved to the Oakwood Cemetery Anex, which is what she did. She arranged for a massive stone and other markers and for her own place beside him, which would be similarly opulent. On the back of his stone is a message to him from her extolling the love and devotion they felt for each other. No mention of the second wife. After she died and her stone was erected, their children, Lucretia and Hank, Jr. inscribed their messages to their mother. Hank, Jr.’s starts out, “You, like daddy left to soon.” No, I did not leave out a comma or forget my schooling regarding to, too and two. That is precisely what it says. I’ll let you provide the punchline.
After visiting the grave I went to the Hank Williams Museum, which was recently profiled in the New York Times. Cameras were barred unless you became a $200 sponsor, so I didn’t get any photographs of the Cadillac in which he died. There were no pictures of the Andrew Johnson Hotel and when I asked about it the lady who runs the operation more or less said there was no reason for such a picture – it wasn’t significant. When I told her that Knoxvillians suspect – a little tongue in cheek – that Hank might have died there, she became indignant and insisted that he only stopped there for dinner the night before his death and then traveled on and that he got a ticket in Virginia and talked to the judge at that stop and he subsequently died in West Virginia, which is, indeed, where he was pronounced dead.
Andrew Johnson Building, Knoxville
She bases her belief on the account of the driver, who lives in Montgomery and is a friend of hers. It contradicts other accounts. I grew up around Clint Holmes who was a member of one of the incarnations of the Drifting Cowboys. He thinks Hank was dead long before West Virginia, though he, admittedly, wasn’t there. The Cradle of Country Music walking tour brochure says, “On New Year’s Eve, 1952, Hank Williams checked into the hotel for what would be the final hours of his life. Though he was pronounced dead in West Virginia, many believe Williams was dead before his teenaged chauffeur carried him out of this hotel.” I’ve been told Jack Neely penned those words. In any case, here is his thorough description of the events of that night.

So, we’ll never know for sure where he died. Everyone agrees he had his last meal and his last bed in the Andrew Johnson Hotel. That’s enough reason to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage to Hank the next time you are on Gay Street.

For now, here’s a nicely produced video which includes some footage of Hank and features one of his biggest songs, “Cold, Cold Heart.” You may have to wait a minute for it to load, but it’s worth the wait.

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