I am in South Alabama, covering Hank Williams’s 100th birthday in his home state and mine.
My first stop is a nursing home. I have an interview with Earl. Earl is not an authority on Hank’s music. Earl is a retired sheet metal worker.
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.
“He used to be sharp, before his stroke,” his granddaughter explains. “He used to have great expressions, sometimes I kick myself for not writing them all down before his stroke.
“One thing I remember he used to say: Things don’t always work right, but they always works out.’”
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.
“I-I-I used to p-p-play this song!” he shouts. “Turn it up!”
Earl used to play upright bass with a band called the Wildcats. They played all over South Alabama. He played every Hank song in the book. His wife died. He never remarried. He raised six children on his own. No help.
You want to talk about strong.
So I don’t get far with Earl. The stroke has done too much damage. So we part ways. Soon I’m on my way to the next interview.
Hank is on my truck stereo. The tune is “Dear John.” A song which reminds me of my father. Also named John. In some ways, he and Hank were similar. Both were skinny. Both were singers. And both ended their lives by their own hands.
My next interview is Karah, who is no expert on Hank Williams, either. But she grows delicious tomatoes and that’s practically the same thing.
I find her working in her garden with her 10-year-old daughter, Sidney, who is a new Hank Williams fan.
Little Sidney says, “I’m not allowed to listen to new-country. My mom says new pop-country music sounds like pigs passing gas.”
“Your mother is a very wise woman,” I say.
“Have you ever heard a pig fart?” Sidney asks.
“No. But a boy can dream.”
Before I go, we listen to “Honky Tonk Blues.” Karah says, “Hank’s music helped her survive the death of her firstborn child. She would lock herself in her room and listen to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” on repeat. She says this helped heal unseen wounds.
Karah sends me away with tomatoes in a Winn-Dixie bag. I am heading to my third interview.
Miss Sandra is seated on the porch of a clapboard house. She’s in a rocking chair her daughter purchased from Cracker Barrel for the same price as a mid-size SUV.
“Move your foot,” Sandra says, mid-interview. “I’m gonna rock forward.”
Sandra is 94 years old. Six years younger than Hank would be. She is dying. Miss Sandra’s cancer has returned. But Sandra says she’s not worried. She never believed she was going to live this long anyway.
“When I’s a young woman, Hank’s band come through Montgomery. He was so handsome. Me and Jimmy Andrews danced. Jimmy was the only boy who I had ever kissed. As we were dancing, Hank watched me from the stage, the whole night. He had bedroom eyes.”
I watch the sun go down with Miss Sandra. We listen to “Hey Good Lookin’” on her new iPad. A song Hank wrote in 20 minutes while on a plane with Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens.
Miss Sandra says: “I ain’t scared’a dying. I got folks waiting for me up there.”
Soon, the day is over. I’m on my way home. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” plays in my truck. I read over today’s notes, and I am a little disappointed in myself.
Namely, because I set out to write stories to honor Hank Williams’ 100th birthday. Instead, the stories I found had little to do with Hank at all. They were about his people. Of which I am one.
Oh well. I’ve heard it said that life doesn’t always work right. But it always works out.