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.