Cecil Jackson vividly recalls the day in 1944 when Hank Williams stopped at a gas station just north of Montgomery, Ala. "He bought me a Coke," beams Jackson. "I was 8, and that was the day I started following Hank's career."
Since that day, Jackson, now 73, has been accumulating memorabilia related to the life and career of the singing and songwriting legend. Since 1999, his collectionpurchased at flea markets and antique shops, from other collectors and donated from Williams' familyhas been on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery as part of the Hank Williams Memorial Foundation, which Jackson oversees as president.
Managed by Jackson's daughter, Beth Petty, the 6,000-square-foot museum contains more than 2,000 itemsthe largest collection of Williams' personal effects and career artifacts in existence. One of its highlights is the restored 1952 Cadillac convertible in which 29-year-old Williams was riding before he was pronounced dead of heart failure on New Year's Day 1953.
Visitors are greeted by the distinctive sound of Williams' voice, from one of his radio and television appearances or singing one of his songs, such as "I Saw the Light," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" or "Honky Tonkin'." The hand-carved wooden Indian that inspired another hit, "Kaw-Liga," stands just beyond a bronze bust of Williams smiling from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat.
"I was raised on Hank," Petty says, welcoming a visitor. "And by the time you leave here, you'll know him and love him, too."
Entire walls are covered with LP records and album covers, and room after room displays personal items, like Williams' custom-made, ornately tailored suits. Bob and Anna Jones of Summerside, Ohio, watch the original restored newsreel footage of Williams' funeral, then sit for a 90-minute documentary about his life. "I've always been a fan," Bob says.
Petty taps a glass case, indicating a small, gray book, Songs of Hank Williams, The Drifting Cow Boy. "To my daddy, this was the most important thing in here," she says, "the first Hank piece he ever bought."
About 20,000 people tour the museum each year, and a glance at guestbook entries shows the international reach of Williams' music: Israel, Norway, Sweden, Italy. His short career produced 225 recordings and 101 albums, and a new set of recordings being released this year indicates his continuing popularity.
The Hank Williams Museum is part of the state-designated Hank Williams Trail encompassing his boyhood home, many of his favorite haunts and his burial place.
Much of Williams' short life was spent within blocks of the museum, from his mother's boarding house to the streets where the youngster shined shoes, strummed guitar and sang alongside his mentor, black street musician Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne.
"Montgomery Street is called 'Hank's first and last' because he won his first talent contest in 1937 at age 14 at the old Empire Theater," Petty explains, "and held his final concert on the same street at the Elite Café," which has since been renamed Noble's.
"The only theatrical movie made about Hank, Your Cheatin' Heart, had its world premiere in 1964 at the Paramount across the street from the Empire, and Hank's funeral was held at the City Auditorium on Perry Street, with the attendance being the largest crowd ever assembled on the streets of the city."
Petty pauses, soaking up the vibes of Hank Williams that still seem to linger all around.
"This was Hank's town," she says, "and he's still a powerful presence here."