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On Saturday (April 16), Rodney Crowell, Steve Young, Ashley Monroe and the Secret Sisters performed to a packed theater and shared their thoughts on the influence of Hank Sr., as museum visitors braved a cold front that had hit town the day before. The Secret Sisters from Muscle Shoals, Ala., opened the 90-minute show, performing songs from their self-titled debut album, including the Hank Williams Sr. tune, 'House of Gold.'
"Everybody falls in love with his gospel songs," says Secret Sisters' Laura Rogers. "When we were recording our album, we had been working on it for two weeks and it was out last day in the studio. Our producer, Dave Cobb, told us to go home and pick a song and bring it in the next day and we would put it down and see how it turned out. We chose the Hank Williams song 'House of Gold,' and we weren't sure how it would sound. When we heard the playback we cried, and the song ended up being one of our favorites on the album."
Ashley Monroe, who has a voice as sweet and pure as the Secret Sisters' harmonies, reflects a definite Hank influence in her music.
"It is such an honor to be here," Ashley said as she took her turn at the mic. "I was very much influenced by Hank early on, and when I was 17, I started thinking about the fact that he wasn't with us anymore and I wrote this song called 'Hank's Cadillac'."
The song's lyrics describe the legendary singer's last tragic moments and convey Ashley's heartbreak (and the heartbreak of many) at not being there to save him from himself: "I'd have kept him up all night, I'd have kept the coffee strong ... I could have kept him hangin' on, if I'd been in the back of Hank's Cadillac."
A few minutes later Ashley paused and said, "I think Hank is here, maybe because Hillary (Hank's granddaughter and Hank Jr.'s daughter) is here."
Hillary Williams was in attendance to listen to the music and further support the Family Tradition exhibit.
Introducing her next song, Ashley said, "I think Hank would have liked this story; maybe he would approve of it," before launching into 'The Things I Do.' Her next offering was her favorite Hank song and perhaps his best-known gospel tune, 'I Saw the Light.'
Before performing 'If I Die,' Ashley recalled the story of how Vince Gill came to sing the song at a Nashville church. "Vince was eating at the Pancake Pantry and this man came up to him and asked if he'd sing at his church. So Vince sang this song."
Vince also sang the tune at Marty Stuart's Late Night Jam last June during the CMA Music Fest, introducing it as a new song he had not yet recorded. He got a tremendous response from his performance.
Steve Young, who wrote 'Montgomery in the Rain,' admitted that Hank Sr. has been a huge influence on him throughout his career. He and Rodney Crowell knew each other when both were struggling songwriters in Nashville, and ironically, Steve was one of the first artists to cut one of Rodney's songs.
"I'm so glad to be here," Steve told the audience. "A couple of my songs mention Hank Williams. I grew up in Alabama and he was a big part of my consciousness, wanting to play music and romanticizing the self-destructive life, which young people seem to do. This is one of my favorite Hank Williams' songs," he added before he sang 'Ramblin' Man.'
"In the early '60s, some of us would go out to Hank's grave at night," Steve said. "At that time, it was open and you could just walk up to it. We were very respectful, but we'd go out there and drink and try to write songs. I had just been to Greenwich Village and heard all the protest songs, which you might imagine didn't work well in Alabama, so it was suggested that I leave town. Before I did, I wrote 'Montgomery in the Rain,' which Hank Jr. used to sing on his shows."
Hank Jr. also sang another of Steve's songs, 'Long Way to Hollywood,' which Steve said sounds like it could have been written about Hank Sr. "It was actually written for me in 1967 when I made my first journey to Los Angeles," he recalled. "It was an amazing adventure to me and I wrote this song to chronicle it."
Rodney also has a personal connection to Hank Williams; his father was a huge Hank fan and constantly sang him the singer's songs. Rodney opened his part of the afternoon with the Hank classic, 'Wedding Bells.'
The singer then picked up his autobiography, 'Chinaberry Sidewalks,' and began to read the story of how, at two years old, his father took him to Houston honky-tonk to see Hank. It was the second to last appearance Hank would ever do.
"I knew, even at two, that this was a special occasion," Rodney said, recalling how his father lifted him on his shoulders so he could see the singer. He went on to talk about a song he wrote with Vince Gill, which was an unfinished Hank Williams song found in a notebook of hundreds of incomplete tunes by the iconic singer/songwriter.
"I was invited to pick one of those songs and finish it," Rodney said. "At the time they didn't have a Luke the Drifter-type song (Hank recorded many gospel tunes as Luke The Drifter during his career) so Vince and I decided to write one. We have recorded it but this is the first time I've ever performed it live."
Rodney asked Hillary and Ashley to join him for a rendition of 'Jambalaya' before closing the event with 'Cold, Cold Heart.' Rodney and his fellow entertainers gave the audience a little more insight into the legacy Hank Williams has left, not just with his songs but with the influence he continues to have on each new generation of singer.
The Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy has been revamped from its original content with additional artifacts from the Williams' family and other sources. Because of its popularity, the exhibit will be at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum through 2011.