Me-oh, My-oh.......Marty Stuart Delivers Hank's 'Holy Grail'

This appeared in Country Weekly - November 19, 1996

Fans are getting chill bumps standing thisclose to some of the incredibly rare Hank Williams artifacts recently put on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

"This is country music's holy grail," Marty Stuart told Country Weekly at the gala opening of Marty Stuart Presents the Treasures of Hank Williams. The majority of the exhibit's 54 artifacts are on loan from the country singer/historian's personal collection.

Also on hand for the Nashville opening were Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III, the Grand Ole Opry's Ricky Skaggs and Connie Smith, and two members of Hank Sr's Drifting Cowboys band, Don Helms and Hillous B. Butrum.

As a special treat, Marty played mandolin and Ricky sang and played guitar on "Alone and Forsaken," a song by Hank Sr.'s somber alter ego, Luke The Drifter. Hank Jr. sang a medley of the more familiar "I'm A Long Gone Daddy" and "You Win Again."

The exhibit, open to the public for the next three years, is sponsored by Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores and Mercury Nashville. Some of the highlights include:

  • Hank's original handwritten manuscripts of "Your Cheatin' Heart, "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I Saw The Light." Museum curator of collections Chris Skinker said Hank "knew enough about his legal rights to sign and date his manuscripts so we know exactly on what days he was writing these songs."
  • The 1948 Packard limousine, pristinely restored, which served as the tour bus for Hank and his Drifting Cowboys;
  • Footage, only recently discovered at Boston University, of Hank performing April 23, 1952 on The Kate Smith Show;
  • Personal letters, photographs, trinkets, songbooks, guns, guitar and costumes; and
  • The chilling Western Union telegram sent to Hank's older sister, Irene: "Come at once. Hank is dead. Mother." Marty said, "This is one of the most powerful pieces I've ever seen."
He acquired 350 pieces of Hank Williams memorabilia through his friendship with the country icon's sister, Irene Williams Smith, to whom Marty dedicates the exhibit. They met in 1993 when she invited Marty to her Dallas home to look at Hank's belongings. "It wasn't just the same old stuff you'd see," he says. "This was family items, treasures of the family that nobody had ever seen, that had been protected since the day he died. And I knew I was in the presence of something really special."

Marty bought some items from Irene before her death March 23, 1995. Then, he says, "Her collection and other things from this collection that she had sold to another person all came up for sale. I had to pay more for this stuff than I did my house, but I couldn't see letting it get away to an auction house or across the water to a foreign country. This was to be kept here--because it belonged to America, and it belonged to country music."

One of his favorite Hank treasures and the first he acquired, was a Nudie-of-Hollywood-designed checked suit Hank wore in one of his most famous publicity photos. It was given to him by Don Helms, who played steel guitar for Hank, then Hank Jr. and now Jett Williams, the legend's daughter.

As for the 6,000-pound, seven-passenger Packard on loan from antique-car restorer Don Tarkington and partner Tom Looney for the exhibit, Helms said, "It didn't look that good when we traveled in it. It would take you about five miles to get it up to 80 mph, then it would take five miles to stop it."

Tarkington adds: "When Hank got that car, it was the first nice car he ever got. 'Lovesick Blues' had just started making him money. He didn't get it new--he was the third owner--but it was still a relatively new car. Extra framing was welded underneath to support the weight of the trailer that he towed. Hank had it over a year and literally wore it out. People ask me if that's the car he died in and I say, 'no, that's the car he lived in.

"Hank spent so much time in the car, traveling from show to show, sort of at the peak of his career. I know he wrote five songs in it in one night," Tarkington said. "A lot of country history went on inside that car.

"We're just absolutely shocked that this stuff even surfaced," museum curator Skinker said of Marty Stuart's Treasures. "It's real exciting."

By Bruce Honick

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