NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Hank Williams Lives Again in People’s Memories

Remembering That History Doesn't Belong Just to the Dead

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In looking at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s wonderful new Family Tradition exhibit honoring the extended Hank Williams family, I was thinking about what the historical tradition means for both artist and audience. As more and more country music artists mature toward eligibility in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I think it’s time to focus on ways to fully honor the greats of country music. It’s wonderful that the Hall of Fame is here as the anchor of country music and as a tourist Mecca for country music fans, but I think it would be good to remember that its reach — and that of all of country music — extends far beyond Nashville’s border in honoring county music throughout this country.

And as today’s young country stars honor their predecessors and work toward a musical glory of their own, it would be good to show them how a country career can be treasured and remembered by fans. And country fans and the country industry should think nationally, rather than locally. The great country stars belong to everyone, not to just to Nashville or to their hometown.

Attempts have been made to form country music trails or tours of certain landmarks, mainly centered around grave and cemetery tours — necessary but not necessarily the most appropriate and human way to celebrate treasured country stars. Country landmarks come in all forms, from recording studios to birthplaces, hospitals, clubs, bars, halls, auditoriums, cars, hotels, record labels, houses and so forth. Some areas are trying to honor them in different ways, including many private museums. The state of Texas has been trying to get a bill through the legislature for a sort of statewide historical trail to mark the many landmarks that were the home or site of so many moments in country music history in Texas, which shares Tennessee’s rich musical heritage. Just as a Beatle tour of Liverpool or London is a totally different experience than most tourist tours in those cities, a Texas tour would visit the sites of musical triumphs. Often, they have disappeared — in peoples’ memories, if not physically, as well.

On a smaller scale, the city of Knoxville, Tenn., has developed a Cradle of Country Music tour to mark and honor some of that city’s musical historical spots. The tour includes the Andrew Johnson office building, which was still a hotel and was the tallest building in town when Hank stopped there at the end of 1952 on his way on his fatal last drive.

Road & Track’s Peter Egan continues his retracing of that drive in installment two of his series in the magazine’s May issue. (See Nashville Skyline of March 20, 2008 for an account of part one.) One of many stops Egan made was at a reputed moonshiner’s house — where Hank bought whiskey on that fatal trip — to take a picture of the house, just in case the tale is true. Egan writes, “In the mythology of music, as in religious faith, everything eventually becomes important, like a splinter from the True Cross.”

The most astonishing thing about Egan’s pilgrimage was that, as he writes, “Virtually everyone we talked to along this route knew the entire Hank Williams story, almost to the point of scholarship — his life and death, down to the smallest details.” The mere fact that Egan was driving a Hank-era powder-blue Cadillac Fleetwood prompted many onlookers to seek him out to hear their Hank memories. Hank was and is important to those people, and that history is vital to them. It belongs to them now, and they are eager to share it with others. The last hotel where he stayed has a historical marker, the last roadside joint where he stopped has its own historical sign, and the last barber chair he sat in is now roped off as a historical shrine. This does not approach Elvis hysteria, but it reflects a vibrant historical reverence.

I’d like to see Nashville start a real, sanctioned country music trail, not just for Hank but for all the musical luminaries who have lived on and trod these streets, from Hank Williams to Jimi Hendrix to Tex Ritter to Patsy Cline to Kris Kristofferson. And there’s no reason why that can’t spread to a national historical music trail.

History doesn’t belong just to the dead. Every music artist performing or writing or recording here every week is making history in some way. That history shouldn’t be lost.