I am in Alabama, covering Hank Williams’s 96th birthday in his home state. My first stop is a nursing home. I have an interview with a man named Earl.

Earl is not an authority on Hank’s music or anything. He’s just a fan.

He sits in his wheelchair beside the window, listening to music at such a high volume that the windows are cracking.

He is slouched. A stroke has impaired his speech and his thinking.

“Grandad used to be sharp,” his granddaughter says. “He used to have these great expressions, sometimes I kick myself for not writing them all down before his stroke.

“One thing I do remember he used to say: ‘Life don’t always work out the way you want, but it always works out.’”

Mister Earl listens to music coming from a smart TV. The song is Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” He bobs his head. You can see the toe of his Velcro shoe moving. The song makes him come alive somehow.

“I-I-I used to p-p-play this song!” he shouts. “Turn it up!”

“Up?” his granddaughter says. “It can’t go any higher.”

This makes Earl swear like a commercial trucker. He weaves together a quilt-work of cuss words so elaborate that it ought to be on display in the Smithsonian.

I don’t get far with Earl, so we part ways. Soon I’m on my way to the next interview.

Hank Williams is on my truck stereo. The tune is “Dear John.” This music reminds me of my redheaded father. I don’t know why, and I guess it doesn’t matter.

Once you lose someone, off-the-wall things can remind you of them. A bird. A flower. A pocket knife. I remember listening to Hank Williams with my father when I was a boy. In some ways, he and Hank were similar. My father was skinny like him, and a singer. And both men died too young.

My next interview is Karah. Karah is no expert on Hank Williams, either. But she grows delicious tomatoes and that’s practically the same thing.

I find her in her garden with her ten-year-old daughter, Sidney, who is a new Hank Williams fan. A small radio plays old-fashioned country music.

Sidney says, “We turned it to the Hank-station because you were coming. Also because Mom says that new country music isn’t even worth using to call pigs home.”

This makes me laugh because when I was a young man, I was once in a greased-hog chasing contest. The grand prize was a fourteen-foot fishing boat, fully loaded. There must have been twenty or thirty boys competing. We all wore numbers on our chests. They let the hogs go and I ran like fire.

The man who called the hogs from the fairground stage had a waist so wide that his belt could have been the equator.

He shouted: “SOOIE-HOG! SOOIE-HOG!”

I fell facedown in the mud and a renegade hog nearly broke my leg. I had to be escorted to the medical tent by two able-bodied old women from the Civic League.

But I digress.

Karah says, “Hank’s music is my parents’ music, it’s the music I wanna pass down to my daughter because it makes me feel like my relatives are here with me.”

We listen to “Honky Tonk Blues.” We hear the fiddle, the steel guitar, and the two-step rhythm. And I know what she means.

Karah sends me off with a few tomatoes in a Winn-Dixie bag. And I am heading to my third interview.

I find Miss Sandra seated on the porch of an old faded house. She’s in a rocking chair that her daughter just bought from Cracker Barrel.

“My old rockers were falling apart,” Sandra explains. “These new chairs were pricey, but life’s too short for bunk rocking chairs.” She pauses. “Move your foot, I’m gonna rock forward.”

Sandra is ninety years old. She still lives on her own. Her days are easy. She pays a local woman to take care of her cooking and cleaning, and each night her daughter-in-law helps her into bed.

She wears one of those medical alert bracelets in case she falls. But (knock on wood) Sandra hasn’t fallen since her hip replacement.

“When I’s a teenager, I saw Hank’s band come through Montgomery. He was so handsome, and his band was handsome, too.

“Me and Jimmy Andrews danced because Jimmy was the only boy who could dance without stepping on my dang feet. I never got to meet Hank, but that old devil stared at me all night. He gave me the bedroom eyes.

“I’m sorry, that’s the only Hank story I have, you probably wanted more than that.”

“That’s a nice story,” I tell her.

I watch the sun go down with Miss Sandra. We listen to the song “Hey Good Lookin’” on her new iPad.

Miss Sandra’s cancer is back. Her family is sick about it, but Sandra says she’s not worried. She never believed she was going to live this long anyway. And in her own words: “I ain’t scared’a dying. I got people waiting for me up there.”

The day is over. I’m on my way home. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is playing in my truck. I’m sorry. I had hoped to get a few stories about Hank Williams to honor his 96th birthday. But the stories I found had little to do with Hank at all. Oh well.

I’ve heard it said that life doesn’t work out the way you want.

But it always works out.

23 comments

  1. GaryD - September 18, 2019 10:01 am

    “My bucket’s got a hole in it” was the first Hank song I ever heard. I guess because daddy sang it all the time around the house. I’m still a Hank fan after all these years. Thank God for Hank Williams.

    Reply
  2. Joe Patterson - September 18, 2019 11:38 am

    Thanks

    Reply
  3. Morgan T - September 18, 2019 12:11 pm

    Sean – I have been reading your letters for a long time. They strike such a chord in me and remind me so much of the great Lewis Grizzard. You may have seen this obituary because now it has “gone viral”…but, if not, give it a read, and I guarantee it’ll give you a laugh. Blessings – https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.legacy.com/amp/obituaries/hartfordcourant/193855516

    Reply
    • Pat - September 18, 2019 4:06 pm

      Morgan T that is the funniest obituary I have ever read…thanks for posting the link! Wish I could have met him!

      Reply
    • Sandi. - September 19, 2019 5:07 am

      By far this is the longest, most amusing obituary that I’ve read in my entire life! Thanks very much for sharing the link, Morgan. Joe Heller was a hoot and someone I’d like to have known! No doubt he made his mark in this world.

      Reply
  4. Karen - September 18, 2019 12:47 pm

    My daddy’s name was Hank. He used to sing, “Hey, Good-Lookin’”. Thanks for reminding us of his legacy.

    Reply
  5. Magoo Hamilton - September 18, 2019 12:48 pm

    After watching Ken Burn’s Country Music episode last night, this story is even more meaningful. Hank Williams was an incredible song writing/singing personality. Each song touched so many that all claim him as a friend!! Thanks…and Happy Birthday, Hank!

    Reply
  6. Phil - September 18, 2019 1:01 pm

    Last night’s installment of Ken Burns’ “Country Music” on PBS featured Hank Williams. You’ll want to see it.

    Reply
  7. Jolene - September 18, 2019 1:01 pm

    Hillbilly Shakespeare was on TV last night try and catch it sometimes. Mighta been APTV. That’s Alabama Public TV all about the hillbilly music greats. They didn’t call it country back then. I’m still all a twitter with Hank and listened to I Saw the Light on my way to work. My old flame and I use to listen to his albums and once spent a cold New Year’s Eve maybe? looking for his childhood home. We were way off. But that’s how we were, way off. We stopped to buy firecrackers that night and the love of my lost lost his car keys in a giant firecracker warehouse type deal but we found em or somebody did. He’s long gone now and my tears still flow through a hole in a bucket. Awhh sorry there I go. Hank was one sad sad dude that knew heartbreak. Seriously catch that show. Thanks Sean for the Hank shout out today. Loved the Earl and the Smithsonian.

    Reply
  8. Tom - September 18, 2019 1:02 pm

    My dad went to his grave telling me about how he and a buddy snuck into the Albany, Ga municipal auditorium to see “ Luke the Drifter “ and got to meet him. I miss them both!

    Reply
  9. Connie Havard Ryland - September 18, 2019 1:45 pm

    I grew up listening to Hank Williams and all the others of his generation of music. Today there are very few country singers who actually sing country music. So I subscribe to SiriusXM and listen to Willie Nelson’s channel. Thank you for the music memories.

    Reply
  10. Edna B. - September 18, 2019 2:25 pm

    I grew up with Hank and all the other great country music singers. I also now listen to Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM. Happy Birthday Hank. Sean, you have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  11. Linda Moon - September 18, 2019 2:45 pm

    Earl’s quilt of swearing made you move on quickly, but not too soon to digest some of those sayings of his. I’ve lost someone too soon and “saw” him in my grandsons just last night…beautiful young men, all. I’ll be with cancer survivors today, working out our lives while listening to many stories from people who drop by our Outreach event. And, if it ever cools off in this South, I’ll be on my front porch letting my life work itself out and rocking in my Cracker Barrel chair. Hank would be honored by your digressions. I am always happy to read your stories every day!!

    Reply
  12. Helen Lane - September 18, 2019 2:51 pm

    My mother told us this story of Hank. Her brother was a taxi cab driver in Montgomery for years and years. Hank was a Dj on a radio station in Montgomery. My mother said she and her cousin went out one night on a double date. Her cousin’s date was Hank Williams.

    Reply
  13. Pat - September 18, 2019 4:10 pm

    I’m liking Miss Sandra, she must be a hoot!

    Reply
  14. Linda Chipman - September 18, 2019 5:27 pm

    Good one Sean. I am watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Country Music. Third episode was last night and it was mostly about Hank Williams. Have always thought it was a shame Hank died so young. Kris Kristofferson made the comment that he wished Hank had lived to be as old as he is (Which is 80’s) – just think of all the songs he would have written. I grew up listening to Hank Williams. My uncles had a café next to their farm equipment business. Probably first song I ever heard on a juke box was by Hank. That was real country music.

    Reply
  15. Dolores - September 18, 2019 5:38 pm

    Actually, Sean, you did write a lot about Hank – all three of those fans showed the tremendous affect he had on them. Hank left a wonderful legacy in his many, many fans who love REAL country music!

    Reply
  16. Sandra Binford - September 18, 2019 6:56 pm

    ❤️I agree with all the comments about the Country Music documentary on PBS. If you’re not watching you need to! Learned last night that Hank wrote “Hey Good Lookin’” for Little Jimmy Dickens and ended up recording it himself before Jimmy had a chance to!

    Reply
  17. JK - September 19, 2019 11:45 am

    I met Hanks FIRST son Lewis before Hank, Jr. In Montgomery. Look him up

    Reply
  18. That's jack - September 20, 2019 1:35 am

    I enjoyed the read. I also like Hank, we did visit a museum in Alabama, I think it was in Montgomery. Enjoyed it. Died too soon, He wasted a good life, but left a lot of memories.
    Sherry & jack

    Reply
  19. Amelia Ballew - September 20, 2019 5:15 am

    Good article. You did a great job. This is the essence of Hank Williams music. I’m 40, a relatively young fan of his music. I hope you got the chance to see the PBS special documentary on Country Music by Ken Burns.

    Reply
  20. Cynthia Stermer - October 11, 2019 11:44 am

    …”a few tomatoes in a Winn Dixie bag! “Rings true.

    Reply
  21. Alesia richburg - October 11, 2019 12:14 pm

    Oh my the age of Hank Williams, that’s when music was pure and clean. Nothing compares to sound of beauty like the early days. I’m 57 and I still live in a world of the early music. Nothing like, Hank, Merle, Johnny, Kitty, Patsy,The Carters. Theres something about those songs simple & pure. Perhaps musicians should have to hear the truthiness of their fore fathers. Thanks to Hank and many others my heart is always full.

    Reply

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