Hank Williams is one of those rare American icons whose life and art were so enigmatic that his death before age 30 only gave birth to a mythology that has survived more than twice as long.
Sure, there are the songs and the music. That is the most precious gift “Luke the Drifter” gave the world. The songs make Hank Williams as connected to us today as when he lived.
But beyond that, the mythology exists where the spiritual touched the physical — where Hank Williams left footprints, sang his songs, married his muse, spilled his booze, strummed his guitar, dropped a baited hook in the water or just watched the sun sink behind a lake and trees from a porch swing.
Alabama is rife with such places.
There is his boyhood home in Georgiana that has been converted to a shrine to the country music legend and attracts everyone from true Hank Williams pilgrims to curious beach-goers looking for a sidetrack experience.
There is the former garage in Andalusia where a justice of the peace married Hank Williams and “Miss Audrey” Sheppard in 1944. A giant mural of the newlyweds and historic marker may be one of the most photographed spots in Covington County these days.
Then there is the Hank Williams Cabin on Lake Martin.
The varnished story has Williams staying there with a radio DJ buddy at the request of his mother looking for a quiet place for her son to get a break from life on the road in August 1952.
After being regaled with stories of the Kowaliga Indian tribe that once lived in the area, Williams would spend his nights writing the song that, after some tinkering in the studio with co-writer Fred Rose, would become his novelty hit “Kaw-Liga.”
A framed copy of the record hangs on the wall inside the two-bedroom cabin, perfectly at home with the 1952-era dÃ©cor.
The unvarnished version of the story has Williams staying at the cabin only after spending a night in the Alexander City Jail sleeping off one of his infamous drinking binges. The cabin was a needed respite not just for Williams, but for his pregnant girlfriend, Bobbie Jett.
Mythology has a way of existing between the polished fable and the messier truth.
“Both versions about Hank and the cabin are true,” said David Mitchell, a Hank Williams researcher and historian, in addition to being a Realtor on Lake Martin. “Both happened in mid-August of 1952 after he was let go from the Opry. His mother wanted him to come to the lake for some R&R, but it turned into a whirlwind and continued until his death.”
Mitchell said there is no doubt that Williams did stay at the cabin and write the bones of the song “Kaw-Liga” there. Some believe he may even have written or at least started what became his classic hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” while staying at the cabin.
As Mitchell noted, Williams’ time in the cabin was sandwiched between two seminal events in the Hank Williams mythos. It would have been a few days after the Grand Ole Opry fired Williams for “habitual drunkenness” and a few months before he died in the back seat of a Cadillac in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1953, at the age of 29, on his way to play a show in Canton, Ohio.
Mitchell said what makes the Hank Williams legend so lasting is the fact that nearly everything you’ve heard about him is true.
“About the mythology of Hank, well actually it’s not myth,” he said. “His life was a lived out movie script that couldn’t have been written even if someone was paid to do so. It’s really a fascinating journey. I think that is what pulls people still to him today. They keep searching for the mythical Hank Williams but he never will be found because he’s not there. His life is really an open book and laid out for all to read, but people will see what they want to see and think what they want to think.”
Today, the Hank Williams Cabin is part of the Children’s Harbor grounds on Lake Martin. Children’s Harbor serves as a camp for sick and disabled children and their families with ties to Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital of Alabama and other child-centered organizations.
At a cost of $250 per night, visitors can stay in the cabin in much the same way Williams did more than 60 years ago. From the old metal table to the kitschy curtains and the Coca-Cola glasses in the classic metal pantry, the cabin screams “1950s.” The two bedrooms each have two twin beds and the living room furniture is straight out of “Green Acres.”
There are no televisions or Wi-Fi and the old-style radio is there for decoration, not for actual use.
A glider swing on the back porch faces the water. The rhythm of the water meeting the land and the bells ringing on a floating buoy break the stillness and it’s easy to imagine Williams pulling out his guitar to break the calm.
Wanda Coker, facility coordinator at Children’s Harbor, said the cabin is rented regularly during the spring and summer months. Sometimes, bridal parties want a place to get ready before a wedding at the nearby chapel, but Hank Williams fans also find their way there.
Fans have come from other countries. Some purposefully rent the cabin on Williams’ birthday or the anniversary of his death. Others aim for mid-August to mimic the time the man himself stayed there.
“One couple came all the way from Holland,” Coker said. “They stayed in other landmarks along the way but the Hank Williams cabin was certainly on their ‘to do’ list.”
Then there was the time a man who called himself “Hank’s biggest fan” rented the cabin.
“He wanted to stay specifically on Hank’s birthday,” Coker said. “The next morning we kept hearing music. We looked over and he was on the beach with a guitar singing one Hank Williams song after another. He had a camera set up on the beach and he was recording himself. The next day after he left, we found that he had left a note under the glass on the kitchen counter addressed to Hank telling him ‘Happy Birthday’ and how much he enjoyed staying in ‘his’ cabin.”
Those wanting the full “Hank experience” should make dinner plans at the nearby Kowaliga Restaurant.
Although it carries the tribal name, the wooden Indian and walls filled with Hank Williams memorabilia make it obvious the Kowaliga Restaurant is a tribute to “Kaw-Liga” and the man who sang it. Such is the power of the Hank Williams mythology.
For the avid Hank Williams fan, eating at the restaurant and staying at the cabin is likely worth the price of the trip. It also helps to know the $250-per-night cabin stay is going to support a good cause at Children’s Harbor.
In the age of smartphones, computers and satellite television, it might be hard for many to justify the visit just because a sign out front proclaims the place the “Hank Williams Cabin.”
Then again, what is a piece of mythology worth?