The annual Hank Williams festival will be held June 3-4 at the Hank Williams Music Park in Georgiana.
The festival has its roots in the late 60s or early 70s, but Gerald Hodges has been going since 1997. Hodges now handles public relations, the festival’s website and photography. He’s also a big Hank Williams fan, he said.
Hodges grew up in Mobile County and said he was listening to a radio station the morning after Hank Williams died.
The festival takes place on three acres of wooded land. Hodges said people can bring lawn chairs, and there is plenty of shade and affordable food and water.
“This is a country festival,” Hodges said. “It’s a country atmosphere. People have been coming to this festival for decades. It’s a time really to hear great music and repeat friendships.”
Hiram “Hank” Williams, an Alabama native, was one of the most influential country artists of the 20th century. He recorded 55 singles that were Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers, 12 of which were number one.
The childhood of Hank Williams
Williams was born in 1923 in Butler County. He suffered from spina bifida occulta, a birth defect of the spinal column which would plague him with pain for the rest of his life.
Williams’s father suffered a brain aneurysm and was absent for a large portion of his childhood. Williams and his mother, Lillie, moved around frequently. In 1934, they moved to Greenville, Alabama, then to Garland in 1935. They later moved to Georgiana, where the festival is now held in his honor at the house where Williams once lived.
“[Hank’s mother] had gone to the post office to mail a letter, and there was a doctor that saw her and asked her if she needed a place to live, and he said he had a house, and he offered her that house, and she took it,” said Hodges. “…They lived there until they moved to Montgomery.”
As a child, Williams paid Greenville blues musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne food and money for guitar lessons.
In 1937, Williams was hired by a local radio station to perform and host his own 15-minute program. The show was a hit, with listeners contacting the station to ask for more of “the singing kid.”
William’s career and legacy
During World War II, Williams was medically disqualified from military service after he injured his back falling from a bull in a rodeo. Williams worked for a shipbuilding company in Mobile, where he met Audrey Sheppard. The two were married in Andalusia.
In 1949, Sheppard gave birth to Hank Williams Jr., who has since gone on to create a unique musical career of his own.
Williams suffered from severe alcoholism throughout his life and was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry in 1952 for habitual drunkenness. Williams also had problems with morphine and other painkillers prescribed to him for his spina bifida occulta disease.
Also in 1952, Williams divorced Sheppard and married Billie Jean Jones.
On New Year’s Eve that year, Williams consumed a combination of chloral hydrate and alcohol. When he started experiencing adverse side effects, his doctor injected him with vitamin B12, which also contained a quarter grain of morphine.
Williams died hours into New Year’s Day 1953 on the way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. He was only 29 years old.
Williams’s legacy runs deep in country music, and he has been referred to as “the King of Country Music.”
His popular songs include lonesome tunes such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “There’s a Tear in My Beer” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as well as other songs like “Hey Good Lookin” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”
A long-lived tradition
The Hank Williams Festival was originally held at another property where Williams lived when he was younger. Hodges said the property owner grew tired of beer cans being left on his land, so he stopped allowing the festival there.
In the mid-70s, the festival was moved to where it is today.
“This was kind of like a street dance at the time,” Hodges said. “...They just pulled their flatbed trailers on the side of the street, beside the railroad, and they just got up [and put up] some amplifiers [and] microphones, and they sang.”
In 1992, the city of Georgiana bought the property and made it the Hank Williams Music Park. The house where Williams lived was made into a museum, where they display some of Williams’s memorabilia.
Hodges said he’s read a newspaper article that said Williams Jr. was at the festival in 1976. However, Williams Jr. has never attended the festival since the city purchased the property.
Hodges said the Hank Williams Fan Club, whose building is directly across the street from the park, was very instrumental in organizing the festival, especially the late Mary Wallace.
“They just really got this thing going,” said Hodges. “And it’s been a very good success.”
Though there is another Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, the Hank Williams Festival and the Hank Williams Music Park have no connection.
This year’s lineup
Hodges said over 15 people will be performing at the event and singing Williams’s songs. Other acts will be singing original music, including Gene Watson, who will be Friday’s headliner.
“He is the favorite,” Hodges said.
Neal McCoy will be the headliner for Saturday.
One of the Hank Williams impersonators is Colon Leatherwood from Ozark, Alabama. Leatherwood has been singing Williams’s songs for over 30 years and has opened for George Jones.
Hodges said Leatherwood has been at every festival Hodges has attended.
“This is a real Hank Williams fan,” Hodges said. “He’s a great impersonator. He is probably the best one that we have.”
Live music begins at 3 p.m. on Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.
According to Hodges, the largest crowd he’s seen at the festival was when big-name performers like George Jones or the Oak Ridge Boys have performed there. Those years, he’s seen around 5,000 people show up.
This year, Hodges said he expects the crowd to be around 4,000 or 4,500.
Hodges said he recommends festival-goers try to find a place to stay in Montgomery or Greenville.
Admission to the festival is $20 for Friday night and $30 for Saturday. Tickets must be purchased online before Friday night.
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