Hank Williams' family legacy

April 17, 2008 11:13:51 AM PDT
It's no shock that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum got a tepid response from Hank Williams Jr. on their plans for an exhibit on his family, from his iconic and troubled father through his own hell-raising days to his children's lives.

The museum wanted Williams, a private man, to open his vault of family keepsakes. Needless to say, their first meeting didn't go well.

"I asked him then, 'Are you going to make me beg? Can I have some of these things?"' recalled Carolyn Tate, vice president of museum services. "He can non-answer you with the best in the business. He just went, 'Hmmm.' So for three years we've been courting him."

The family had reservations about reopening old wounds and about how their stories would be represented. But they came around, and last month the museum opened "Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy," a multimedia exhibit that runs through December 2009.

"Every one of them had grown up with that intense interest and had been used and abused and were intensely private about certain things," Tate said. "They were very guarded about who they trusted and who'd they talk to. It took a long time to build these relationships."

The family wound up giving oral histories and lending about 99 percent of the display - the bulk of it an intensely personal collection of scrapbooks, snapshots, newspaper clippings, private letters and home movies.

There's a photo of Hank Sr. with his baby son, movies of a family vacation to Disneyland, song lyrics Hank Sr. wrote just before his death.

"Seventy percent of the artifacts I didn't know existed. I had never seen them before," said singer/songwriter Holly Williams, the 27-year-old daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of Hank Williams Sr. "The suitcase that was with Hank the night he died is an amazing find."

The museum already had enough Williams artifacts in its collection that it could have done the exhibit without the family, but Tate said it wouldn't have been as personal.

"They were so incredibly candid and open and sweet with their memories, and they talked openly about the alcoholism and the tragedy," she said.

A lot of the items show that the Williams clan wasn't all that different from other families in the 1950s and '60s. They danced and goofed around in their living room and took pictures of their kids on Santa's lap.

But when you read the text panels and interactive screens and listen to interviews playing on the overhead monitors, a darker side emerges.

Hank Sr. battled alcohol and drug addiction while writing some of the most memorable songs in American music, including "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Move It On Over."

"I think he's the dividing line between traditional and modern country music," said Chet Flippo, author of "Your Cheatin' Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams." "Country music and country songwriting really came of age with his work, and in the process it made country music a valid popular form of music."

He was found dead in the back seat of his Cadillac in West Virginia on New Year's Day 1953. Williams, who was on the way to a concert in Ohio, was only 29. The official cause of death was heart failure, but there's still some mystery about the circumstances.

"If you look at how much Hank Williams did by 29 years old, it makes you feel pretty worthless," says his 35-year-old grandson, Shelton Hank Williams, a musician who goes by Hank Williams III and plays rootsy country music reminiscent of his grandfather one moment, then punk rock and thrash metal the next. "I'm thankful for being from that bloodline, but if you compare yourself all the time, you'll lose your brain."

Hank Jr. nearly did just that. He began his career as a child performing his legendary father's songs before finally forging his own musical identity in the 1970s. He fused country music with Southern rock and became one of the most popular and influential country stars of the '80s.

Like his father, he was a rebel and slow to gain industry acceptance. He attempted suicide in 1974, and a year later broke the bones in his face in a near-fatal fall from a Montana mountain.

Williams, 58, didn't respond to requests for an interview, but his daughter Holly Williams said he wanted the exhibit to be a balanced portrayal of his life and his family.

"My dad said he wanted people to realize that we're a completely regular family that has its ups and downs," she said. "I love when you walk in and see my dad and his mom on sleds and the video from Disneyland. He wanted to convey that. My dad lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee. It's not like he moved to Hollywood and started doing movies."

The display touches on other family members as well, each of whom faced their own travails: Hank Sr.'s first wife, Audrey, was a country singer and businesswoman who died in 1975 as the IRS was seizing her home; Jett Williams fought to establish herself as the daughter of Hank Sr. and Bobbie Jett, whose brief relationship occurred between his two marriages; Hank Jr.'s daughters Holly and Hilary were seriously hurt in a 2006 car crash, and his son Hank III has publicly feuded with his record label.

Nothing seems glossed over, not the court battles over the estate, nor the divorces or family squabbles. It's all there, but so are the warmer moments.

"It's brought people together," Hank III said of the exhibit. "There are still a couple members of the family that didn't get talked to. Not all the family tree came together, but most of it did.

"Back when I was a teenager this never would have happened," he added. "I know that for a fact."