Sculptor Bill Rains, working on a statue of Hank Williams to be placed in downtown Nashville, claims to have awoken one night to find a wavery spectre of the bony singer standing at the foot of his bed, fixing him with a silent stare. Last year, the cast and crew of the stage show Lost Highway: The Music & Legend of Hank Williams got a jolt at the Ryman Auditorium when, during a rehearsal, a light popped on by itself, and the image of a cowboy hat appeared on the back wall. ”It was only up there about two seconds,” remembers Highway star Jason Petty, ”but we were all speechless.”
Like Frank Sinatra in New York’s Little Italy, Williams, country music’s patron saint of suffering, haunts this town. He was its first big legend and its most influential — and most tragic — muse. ”Hank is a prototype,” says Country Music Foundation historian John Rumble, ”a songwriter who came to Nashville in 1946 with his songs and dreams, looking for the big break. You still see people getting off the bus with their guitar in one hand and a briefcase full of songs in the other.”
In 1953, at the age of 29, Williams rode a mixture of morphine, chloral hydrate, and hooch to Hillbilly Heaven in the backseat of a Caddy. But today, he is such a deified romantic poet (”Hank Died for Our Sins,” reads one T-shirt) that tracing his earthly path is like seeking out the historical Jesus.
Williams’ visage peers down from the walls of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Robert’s Western Wear, clubs that rim the old Opry district he walked some 45 years ago. He watches from the Hank Williams Jr. Family Tradition Museum, which houses his ‘52 baby blue chariot of death. And in the Williams exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it seems to be the face of a killer on his photo ID from an Alabama shipbuilding job. The spooky star quality is evident — in his classic photos, Williams appears to be pre-dead, skinny as a skeleton, walking history. It’s poetic justice, then, that Nashville can’t forget Williams, and for so many reasons — including the collective guilt the city feels for his 1952 firing from the Grand Ole Opry.
”Lord, he drove me crazy. He kept my head all messed up,” George Jones once said about Williams’ classic honky-tonk, songs so mournful they suggested he sucked on his own pipeline of pain. In the end, it’s that music, partly responsible for Nashville’s budding return to traditional country, that keeps Williams alive.