Georgiana, Alabama, 1998 A woman growing old chokes up at the mere thought of seeing the house her father built a half mile away from her own, overgrown with vines. She can't bring herself to have it torn down, but can't bear to watch as each year the pull of gravity is winning it back to the earth ... A minister on his third religion whose personal search for spiritual meaning and a sense of place formed a full and complete relationship with the small town's shrinking congregation ... A dying woman makes a deathbed request of the retired school band leader. She wants him to come play "Nearer My God to Thee" on his clarinet. It's been years since he's played, but not wanting to turn her down, he goes. With her faltering breaths she asks him to play it loud enough to be heard in the next town, which he does. Each of these stories sounds like it could be the scenario of a country song. None of them are. They all spring from the real lives of people in Georgiana, Alabama. Dead for over 45 years now, the presence of Hank Williams is still felt in his boyhood home of Georgiana, Alabama through familial and community ties. His public influence continues to empower voices of country music heard throughout the state, the nation and the world. Those who knew him are all nearly sixty or older. Though his contemporaries and relatives could talk endlessly about Hank, in the end they'd only be revealing more vivid portraits of themselves. Assessing Georgiana, mayor Lynn Watson said, "We have two things: Hank Williams and hunting." People would stop by and ask about Hank. They'd be fans on a pilgrimage or Nashville up-and-comers hoping to find the fountain and drink some of the magic for themselves. Whatever their reasons for coming, it was clear that Williams' legacy was a real asset, ripe for further development. When the house at 127 Rose Street came on the market in 1992, the mayor assembled the unanimous support of town council (however, it was not unanimous amongst the citizenry – many considered the purchase to be a potentially dangerous and wasteful folly) and bought it. This was the house Williams moved into after the family’s wooden shack on Highway 31 burned down. A charitable Mr. Thaddeus B. Rose offered it to Lillie Williams and her two children rent-free. It's the only home Hank lived in that is still standing on its original site. It opened as the Hank Williams Museum in 1993. That was the same year in which Mary Wallace, who lives in a house across the street, started the Hank Williams International Fan Club. Her tireless advocacy has earned her the state's designation of "One of the Most Recognizable Faces in Alabama." The organization's activities have both spread the word about the museum, as well as helped to fill it with Hank-related artifacts from around the globe. The streets of Georgiana look pretty much as they did to Hank in the thirties, albeit with the irregular rhythm of dry and empty lots where there used to be structures. An abundance of vacant buildings stand in testament to changing fortunes and solid construction. Fires in the twenties burned whole blocks of wood buildings which were then rebuilt with bricks fired in a local kiln. There used to be several fine hotels, though now the nearest lodging is fifteen miles away in Greenville. The absence of any sort of eatery in the center of town is further evidence of change and loss. The surrounding land, which once nurtured strawberries and cotton, now supports acres of pine trees. Fetching $100-150 apiece, that's where the money is. Twenty-five to thirty years will see a stand of pines reach maturity. The constant stress from the logging trucks along the state and county roads can be read like the lines on a rugged old face. Settled in 1855 by Pitts Milner who moved his family from Georgia, he originally named the community Pittville. After their young daughter Anna fell into a bog and suffocated, Milner renamed the town in her honor. The Louisiana & Nashville Railroad cut through the center like a river, reshaping Georgiana, like many other small southern towns. Nobody in the nineteenth century would have guessed just how quickly that river would run dry. Georgiana's children of the twenties and earlier, now heading into their final years, bear witness as the future’s bright promise of shiny steel trains has become a relic of neglect and changing times. Georgiana was a hub for the L&N Railroad and many of their employees had fine houses throughout the town. In the mid-fifties city fathers sided with the workers when a strike brought the railroad to a standstill. Once the dispute was settled the railroad promptly relocated to another town, thereby pulling out jobs and citizens. Hank Williams said in interviews that his songs would often come to him like a message from God and he simply had to be there to receive them. One such vision came to Mayor Watson around the same time the museum was purchased. There had been a recurring problem with bottles being smashed on the air conditioning unit behind a city property. Intent on catching the hooligans, he decided to follow the practice of any good hunter and lay in wait. He brought along a six-pack and plunged into the overgrown tangle of adjacent land to observe from undercover. However, once inside the wilds of the abandoned lot, he discovered the remnants of old building foundations and a road. And that's when the idea struck: this land could be cleared and turned into a site for the concerts they'd been presenting as street dances on their annual Hank Williams Day. Thus was born the Hank Williams Memorial Park. "I've got a talent for seein' something in the rough and shinin' it up and makin' it into something," said the mayor. The festival evolved into a weekend event, most recently featuring George Jones and two of Hank's progeny, Hank Williams III and Jett Williams. Every motel room in the county from Andalusia to Greenville sells out. The town is now prepared to hear overtures from hoteliers who would build at the undeveloped interstate exit two miles outside of town, now that it's been made inhabitable with sewer and water lines. In Mayor Watson's life he's known there to be only two other mayors in Georgiana. They'd hold office until they died or, as Watson says, "got to the physical point where they felt they couldn't do it." In 1988 he had what some locals viewed as the audacity to run against a seated mayor. And win. "I ran because I love this little town and there was a lot of things I saw and thought could be done if the right person was there to go ahead and do them. But it's a lot slower process than you think it is." His father, James, was born in Georgiana, as was his grandfather. Like many Georgiana residents, Watson’s father left briefly while in the Air Force, but returned as soon as he could. "I was in the service and they offered me another stripe to see the world, but I said 'No, I want to go back home.’" Lynn Watson himself went away to college in the sixties and upon returning home, took up residence outside of town. He became known as a bit of a wild man, a bearded renegade who raised race horses and rode in shows throughout the south. Watson turned his attentions in towards Georgiana in 1976 when he first ran for mayor (and lost) and then took a place on the town council. His willingness to step into the fray serves him well as mayor where he must wrestle his community and its shoestring budgets through the thicket of state guidelines and the mind-numbing fog of bureaucratic procedures. A small town, like a small business, can be dealt a lethal blow by being forced to watch and wait for a problem to be made right. Watson's Insurance Agency is next door to the town hall and the mayor hangs his hat in both places, though primarily in the latter. To expedite matters while he was next door he has a separate mayoral phone on his insurance desk. He was taken to task over the assumed additional cost of running the extra phone. He countered with the assertion that it wasn't costing a penny more, which he demonstrated by showing the simple plug adapter he used allowing him to drop a wire out the back of his town hall office running fifty feet to enter the insurance office through the wall. Direct and efficient, frontier solutions are sometimes the only sensible option. Another solution of a different sort plays itself out once a month at the First United Methodist Church. The old movie theater in town has been closed for decades and the boarded up brick building has nothing to offer now but its four brick walls – even the roof is gone. Each month on a Sunday evening Wendell Andrews, a retired colonel and active member of the small congregation, sets up his VCR in front of thirty metal folding chairs in the church annex. During announcements at the start of the Sunday service, Reverend Stock lets Wendell fill in the details for that night's presentation. "The movie tonight is a gunslinger western and I want to remind you to bring a seat cushion. Also, if you want something to eat besides popcorn and Oreo cookies, you'll have to bring it yourself." For the first movie of the spring, two dozen of the faithful assembled to watch John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn. This videotape is widely available at rental shops and libraries and any of those gathered could have watched it at home, but they didn't. They were gathered for one of the finer, though neglected aspects of movie watching: movies as a community experience. The smell of popcorn filled the church while birds flew in and out of the fallen movie palace two blocks away. The mayor proudly points out that the town's sidewalks are always repaired with great expedience. This would not be so were it not for the large number of retired school teachers – many of whom are also widows – who like to go out walking. The phones in the town office ring regularly with calls from them reporting new cracks, crevices and holes. Potholes in the streets are attended to at a leisurely pace, but the sidewalks are fixed pronto. A recent study has found Alabama to be the most rooted state in the nation, and a survey of Georgiana would bear that out to a remarkable extreme. In this part of the country, where families go back four and five generations, the town is inextricably tied to the histories of these families. Eddie Lee Watson, a first cousin to Hank, tried a move fifty miles north to Montgomery in 1944, but with her sweetheart still in Georgiana, she came right back and they eloped. They're still living in the house they built four years later, filled with the mementos of a lifetime connected to family. Her clear and loving memories of Hank are filled with the small moments of family, rather than the broader gestures of a public figure. Eddie Lee knows the same tales of Hank's history that appear in books. But she, as well as other relatives in the area, also knows the personal connectedness of family that even a best friend isn't privy to. Consider the quiet power of Eddie Lee at age 27 stepping up to her cousin's open casket and slipping her hands around his left hand to feel the guitar-fretting callouses on the tips of his fingers. It's always an open question as to what future generations will do, and even now looking at the youngsters in town it's hard to say where their adult decisions may take them. But the precedent of staying, or of going away to return later, provides a strong model. Everyone wants to be able to feel like they have a home and this whole town is a home. Eddie Lee worked at a nursing home for a time and shakes her head in sadness when she recounts, "They never stop talking about going home and that's what breaks your heart." This sense of home is personified in Roger Pride who recently sold the local paper his father had started in 1911. Few in town are happy with the current state of the Butler County News. Now owned by a newspaper group which has eighty papers throughout the state, local coverage has shrunk in favor of more wire service articles. But retirement has only seen Roger shift his support of Georgiana from the printed page to his own well-known local persona. He keeps a stack of flyers advertising the annual Hank Williams Days Festival in his car, which he distributes throughout the lower half of the state. However, any printed materials from Roger come with something no ad can ever capture: Roger himself, a congenial walking chamber of commerce, full of jokes, anecdotes, facts and good will to all. He proudly points out the pedestrian bridge that traverses the railroad tracks in the center of town. Carefully making his way up the rotting steps, he stands in the center of the span over the tracks. Surveying the main thoroughfare he doesn't see abandoned buildings and boarded windows, rather, he sees home. His gaze is filled with the same affection of seeing one's true love as the most beautiful in the world.
It's hotter than hell in the summer and the logging trucks never rest, but this town, which has been battered by a continual series of economic upheavals since the Depression, survives. It survives because the bonds of family and town history entwine to unite generations. The names on the tombstones match the names on the rural mailboxes. Memories see past the decay of fallen buildings and empty lots. Georgiana survives because of the invisible ties of home.
Illustration by Sarah Hasty Williams
Born in 1954 in Chicago, David Greenberger was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania. He studied painting at Massachusetts College of Art. In 1979 he started The Duplex Planet, a periodical based on his conversations with nursing home residents. This evolved into audio works, both as recordings and performances with music. He has been the subject of three documentaries, and his work been adapted into comic books, short films, and a one act play. He’s been a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered." Greenberger lives and works in upstate NY.