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Hank Williams' cemetery, a favorite tourist spot, maintained with tax money

By Kate Brumback
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — More than half a century after his death, Hank Williams's grave is still perhaps one of the most visited burial sites in Alabama.

A steady stream of fans and tourists stop by the gravesite where Williams is buried next to his wife, Audrey. Ceremonies are held there twice a year — on the Jan. 1 anniversary of his death, and on his birthday on Sept. 17. Fans, including large numbers of British and Japanese tourists, stop by year round.

"I enjoy all country western music and Hank is one of the best," said 63-year-old Guyla Hornsby, who recently moved from Oklahoma to Tallassee, Ala., and was visiting the grave for the first time with her husband, Preston, an Alabama native.

"It's really a nice deal," she said of the monument. "I didn't know what to expect, but it's pretty neat."

It also may be a bit of a surprise to many when they learn just who is tending to the cemetery: State taxpayers.

Williams isn't buried in Oakwood Cemetery, as is commonly reported.

Instead, he's buried in the Oakwood Annex, a cemetery that, unlike the city-owned Oakwood, was in private hands until the owner died and the state was forced to take it over in April 2004.

When no plans were left for succession of that property, there was no one to assume operation, said Ragan Ingram, spokesman for the State Insurance Company, which took over receivership of the cemetery.

The situation is far from ideal, Ingram said. Unlike a funeral home, which could be simply shut down and the property sold if the state were forced to assume ownership, a cemetery has to be maintained. And, he added, it is the taxpayers that are paying for the upkeep.

"Basically, the state has had to assume the responsibility for maintaining the cemetery," Ingram said. "It's not optimistic that the property will be sold because it's pretty near full."

Though the state maintains the cemetery annex — cutting the grass and cleaning up any litter on the grounds — the care of Williams' grave is overseen by the staff of the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery.

The well-maintained gravesite features two white and gray Georgia marble monuments, one to Hank and one to Audrey Sheppard Williams. In front of Hank Williams' monument is a marble replica of his cowboy hat.

The spot where Williams is currently buried is not actually his initial resting place, said Beth Birtley, the museum's manager.

Because of the sudden nature of his death at age 29, his family didn't have a plot ready. He was initially buried in a neighboring plot, but his wife had him moved 13 days later to a plot that was big enough to later accomodate other family members.

He was moved at night because there were so many visitors during the day — between 300 and 500 cars by some accounts, Birtley said.

Two slabs of marble with names, years of birth and years of death mark the places where Audrey and Hank Williams lie.

A low marble curb pens in the artificial-grass-carpeted area around the monument, and two marble benches provide a resting spot for weary visitors.

Montgomery historian Mary Ann Neeley gives tours of Oakwood Cemetery, focusing mostly on the stories of ordinary people buried there. The question she hears most often is, "Where is Hank Williams' grave?"

She said many young people in Montgomery make late-night visits to the country music legend's grave.

Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism and Travel, said the tradition is not unique to Montgomery youth.

"Because of Alan Jackson's song, 'Midnight in Montgomery,' fans of Hank's, as well as country music in general, will frequently go up there to have a beer," Sentell said.

He said he went up to the grave one Sunday to take photos in the early morning light and found several empty beer cans, as well as a full one — seemingly left for Hank. Cemetery custodians have told Sentell it is not uncommon to find beer cans — both empty and full — by the site in the morning.

Birtley's father, Cecil Jackson, president of the Hank Williams Memorial Foundation, founded the museum in 1999. Jackson discovered Williams' music at the age of 8, even before Williams had started recording. He was popular locally and Jackson heard him on the radio and fell in love with his music.

Birtley describes herself as a lifelong Hank Williams fan.

"I was raised knowing who Hank Williams was," she said. "I'm very proud to have had my father teach me who Hank Williams was and how to appreciate him and his music. And I'm proud to be a part of the family that helps keep his memory alive."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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