About 10 years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala., about an hour’s drive from Butler County—where the country-music legend was born 100 years ago—and where Williams grew up from age 13 on. It was overwhelming to be surrounded by over a dozen of his suits and performance outfits, his 1937 Gibson, and even his 1952 Cadillac—the very car he died in, at 29 years old, on New Year’s Day 1953, essentially from heart failure related to his longtime alcoholism.
The artifact that touched me the most, however, was a brightly painted, 7-foot-tall wooden statue of a Native American, what we used to call a “cigar-store Indian.” This was in honor of “Kaw-Liga,” one of Williams’s final recordings—released shortly after his death—and one of his most profound songs. Written with publisher and frequent collaborator Fred Rose, this is the tale of a “wooden Indian” who falls in love with a statue of an “Indian maid” but is too heartbreakingly shy to do anything about it. It’s always struck me as being, in its own way, as moving as anything by, say, Bob Dylan or Stephen Sondheim; Williams vividly describes how Kaw-Liga is so heartsick with unrequited love that he ponders his own existence and “Just stands there, as lonely as can be / And wishes he were still an ol’ pine tree.” Like the best of Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hart, it makes you cry and laugh at the same time.
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