Hank Williams Death Car
Hank Williams was country music's first megastar. The prolific musician and performer wrote songs such as "Your Cheatin' Heart," drank too much whiskey, had family problems. He died in the back seat of his Cadillac while being driven to a gig on New Year's Day 1953. Heart failure and hard living did him in. He was only 29.
The Death Car -- its back seat off-limits to everyone -- is the centerpiece of the Hank Williams Museum in his home town of Montgomery. Manager Beth Petty is as protective of the exhibits as she is of Hank's legacy. Most of the displays, memorabilia, and portraits can never be photographed, per the wishes of those who loaned these items to the museum. "We have cameras everywhere," Beth told us. She meant surveillance cameras, ready to spot any smitten Hank fan trying to sneak a shot with a smartphone.
The museum is a required stop on any Hank Williams (or country music) pilgrimage. In addition to the car, it displays relics such as Hank's boyhood shoeshine box, a sofa from his house, and the last microphone he ever sang into. Several of his "Nudie suits" are displayed as well, gaudy outfits created by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors of Hollywood. Combined with Hank's custom-made cowboy boots and colorful neckties (also on display) -- and the car -- it's clear that Hank Williams understood bling long before there was a word for it.
Hank was wearing a Nudie suit when he died. It's also on exhibit, and resembles a superhero outfit or a jumpsuit from Space 1999. The Death Car itself, a beautiful 1952 Cadillac, was put to practical use for years after Hank's death by the Williams family. Hank Williams Jr. wound up driving it when he was in high school. Years later he restored it and displayed it in his Nashville museum.
In 1999 the Death Car moved to Montgomery, delighting the Hank Williams Museum's founder, Cecil Jackson, who as a teenager had rotated the tires on the vehicle a week before Hank's death. Cecil (who passed away in 2010) commissioned an oil painting of Hank's last departure from Montgomery -- his 17-year-old driver, the Cadillac, and Hank -- which hangs next to the Death Car.
Some friendly advice to visitors who may not grasp all the nuance of country music history: don't mention Hank and Elvis Presley in the same breath. Hank Williams' eggshell blue Caddy preceded Elvis's pink Cadillac by four years. And long before The King, Hank had a pair of blue suede shoes (they're also on display). When we mentioned Elvis to Beth, she quickly put things in perspective. Hank, she said, recorded 225 songs in his brief five year career, a pace that would have blown away Elvis had Hank not died so young. "And Elvis never wrote any of his own music," she said.