Hank's Legacy Lives On

Country Hall's exhibit to feature family album

This appeared in the Nashville Banner - August 26, 1996

"This will be a Hank Williams exhibit the likes of which has never been seen," Country Music Foundation director Bill Ivey says of a show opening September 24 in the Country Music Hall of Fame. "We're doing a Hank family album using computer technology so people will be able to go through several hundred photos of Hank using a touch screen in the museum. We will be projecting on the walls of the gallery slides and movies of Hank. We have some film footage of Hank we are going to show that no one has ever seen. And we'll be doing an ultimate Hank jukebox, so people will be able to listen to any Hank Williams song. It's going to be quite an exhibit."

The heart of the exhibit is country music star Marty Stuart's collection of Williams' memorabilia which started out as an idea for a painting. Stuart had noticed the Country Music Hall of Fame was short on art and he decided to commission a portrait of Hank Williams. As Stuart began collecting pictures for the artist to work from, he came in contact with Williams' sister, Irene Williams Smith of Dallas, Texas.

"She came to a concert to meet me and invited me to her house and that started it," Stuart explains how he began collecting Williams' memorabilia. Irene Williams had much of Williams' personal property, which she had inherited from her mother. As Irene Williams got to know Stuart better, she began showing him things that had belonged to her brother.

"It was a trip beyond the legend of Hank Williams," Stuart recalls. "It took me into the family realm. Things like letters Hank wrote home to his mom or the telegram his mom sent to Irene: 'Come at once. Hank is dead.' Some things really stop you in your tracks, like the original manuscripts of I Saw the Light, Cold, Cold Heart and Your Cheatin' Heart. Putting a Hank Williams hat on top of your head makes you feel kind of strange."

Irene Williams began selling some of the memorabilia to Stuart in the two or three years before her death. "I think she felt they were in good hands," he explains. "After a matter of time, she passed away. Instead of paying an astronomical amount for a painting, I bought the artifacts last November."

Stuart laughs, then adds, "I paid more for the stuff than I paid for my house. But I knew it would be auctioned off, maybe go to a foreign collector. I knew it was really a piece of Americana that would be lost, an important piece of country music heritage. I wanted it to be safe, so I had no choice but buy it."

Stuart also bought items Irene Williams had sold to a collector in the Northwest. "He kept his things in his home. They were starting to deteriorate. He wanted to keep the collection together so he sold me most of the things," Stuart says.

Asked how exposure to things so close to Williams affected his perception of the country music legend, Stuart replies, "It melted all the legends and brought him to life. I think he was a basic country boy. A country boy who had an incredible talent.

"There's always been a controversy: Did Hank write the songs or did Fred Rose? I think you can see from the manuscripts Hank had a natural songwriting gift and Fred helped polish it." The collection includes some correspondence between the two men. The manuscripts and letters will be part of the Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit.

The collection of family photographs also adds another dimension to Williams. "They not only give you an insight into Hank as a real person, you get a real feel for the old South," Stuart says.

When "Marty Stuart Presents: The Treasures of Hank Williams" opens next month, the public can see these things too.

By David R. Logsdon

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