MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The steel gray sky and chilling breeze mirrored the backdrop of a Hank Williams song. Bundled in coats and gloves, some 250 of the singer’s most faithful followers surrounded his gravesite on New Year’s morning to salute their hero on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Williams, only 29, died New Year’s morning 1953 in the back seat of his chauffeured Cadillac en route to a show in Canton, Ohio. Half a century later they are still paying respects. Old friends and new fans showed for the one-hour graveside memorial. Don Helms, steel guitarist in Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band, rode with a friend to the Oakmont Cemetery while the haunting ballad, “Ramblin’ Man,” played in the car. Also present was Charles Carr. Still lean at 68 and neatly attired in black blazer and tie, Carr was driving Williams to Ohio when the singer-songwriter died. Several members of Williams’ early bands — LumYork, Braxton Schuffert and Jimmy Porter — gathered. Williams’ half-sister, Leila Griffin, made the short drive from her Selma, Ala., home with her husband.
Williams and Griffin had the same father, Lon Williams. She was only 9 when her big brother died. “Daddy never got over Hank’s death,” she said. “Nobody knows how bad that hurt my dad. There have been some stories that say Hank and Daddy never got along. But that’s not true. Hank had come down Christmas to see us but we weren’t there.” Williams had a Christmas present for his dad — a song he had written, “The Log Train.” Griffin recalled, “We weren’t home. But Hank played it for everybody around there.
Daddy never got to hear it. Daddy died in 1970 and the recording wasn’t found until later.”
“This [anniversary] is sad in a way,” Griffin said. “But it makes me feel good to know he has so many fans,” she said. Noting that she stays in touch with Hank Williams Jr. , Griffin said, “He called me about this week’s Opry show that he will be doing with Hank III . We stay in touch. As Hank’s getting older, he wants to know more about his family. He’s asking me more about his granddaddy.” [Hank Williams Jr. and his son, Hank Williams III, will perform Saturday (Jan. 4) on the Grand Ole Opry. CMT will televise the segment on Grand Ole Opry Live at 8 p.m. ET/PT.]
In 50 years, this marked Helms’ first visit to Montgomery on the anniversary of Williams’ death. On his recent trip, Helms was a central figure in the three days of official activities, shows and panel discussions. “I’ve always been in a different city,” he said. “For this one I wanted to come back to where it all started.”
Fans gathered from Germany, Massachusetts and neighboring states. A Williams sing-alike journeyed down from Ohio. Parents brought their youngsters, and grandparents brought grandkids, bringing them closer to what must seem a distant figure.
After the ceremony Helms treated the crowd to the hits, playing his signature steel guitar at an informal gathering at the Hank Williams Museum. Onlookers warmed themselves with hot coffee, traditional black-eyed peas and cornbread. Helms nourished their souls with the classics — “Hey Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Wedding Bells.” Musician/fans were quick to take the stage and back Helms. Some squared off at the microphone and belted out their Williams favorite as Helms nimbly weaved Drifting Cowboy magic. But the room turned silent when Helms played his favorite, “Cold, Cold Heart.”
They watched on large screen television the premiere of CMT Inside Fame, documenting the life of the hillbilly king. [The episode airs again Saturday (Jan. 4) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.] Watching documentaries about her brother is nothing new. “Everything’s been said and done before,” Griffin said after the private screening. She sides with her nephew when the feature focuses on Jett Williams being Williams’ daughter. “I’m like Hank Jr.,” she said. “Is it his daughter or is it not?”
Cecil Jackson is a robust gentleman in his mid-60s with neatly trimmed white hair and beard. He presides over the museum and oversees Williams functions. As dark fell on the cold day, Jackson led a candle light vigil at the life-size statue that captures Williams playing his guitar. They collectively sang “I Saw the Light,” eyes focused on the bronzed likeness of their departed idol.
One lady wiped away tears. Another fan nudged the man next to him and pointed at the statue. “See, Hank’s looking at us,” he said. “He knows we’re here.”