It was a busy Saturday morning in Nashville. We had just turned onto 21st Avenue in the Hillsboro Village section of town when we saw a car pull out of a coveted parking space in front of the Bookman–Bookwoman book store.
We quickly parked and headed toward the Provence Breads and Café a few doors down to sample the homemade bread.
Hillsboro Village was a small Nashville neighborhood that had retained a unique, diverse identity. The mixture of shops, restaurants, and lofts gave it a sense of quaintness.
Across the street was the Pancake Pantry, a restaurant known to be of particular interest to country music tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of a country star. LeAnn Rimes was a regular customer.
As we walked the neighborhood, we noticed a flyer nailed to a pole. The flyer advertised an appearance scheduled later that evening by Jason Petty, a Hank Williams impersonator, at the Belcourt Theatre just around the corner.
Later that night, we returned to the Belcourt to hear Jason Petty sing a few Hank Williams songs.
The Belcourt Theatre was an intriguing Nashville landmark. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, time had caught up with the old movie house. The lobby was dark and the carpets were worn. The lights were missing from the marquee, and a man told us the popcorn machine no longer worked.
Still, there was something special about the place, but like many historic landmarks, the once majestic theatre had fallen on hard times.
There was a small crowd, so we made our way to the front and sat in the first row next to two small Gibson speakers. They were old. In fact, they looked like they might still be tube types.
Suddenly, the lights snapped on, the curtains opened, and out walked a tall, thin man dressed in a sparkling white suit trimmed in bright green. Jason Petty looked like Hank Williams, at least to us, and sounded like him, too.
He performed for about seventy minutes, and then the show was over. Little did we know that the most memorable part of the evening was just beginning.
There was an area near the entrance to the theatre where concessions were served. Brenda and I sat down on two kitchen chairs at a small, round table. We had been there about ten minutes when Jason Petty and an older gentleman walked in and sat at the table across from us.
We were not eavesdropping, but the room was tiny and it was impossible not to hear each other’s conversations.
The man sitting with Jason was Don Helms, the steel guitar player for Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboy Band. Mr. Helms joined Hank’s band in 1944, and was still with the band when Hank died in 1953.
Mr. Helms was telling Jason the story about Hank’s last trip. We heard him say that Charles Carr, a young college student from Montgomery, Alabama was driving Hank from Alabama to Canton, Ohio, to play a concert on New Year’s Eve. As they entered Oak Hill, West Virginia, they stopped at Burdette’s Pure Oil Station where Carr noticed Hank’s fingers were cold and hard. Carr sped to the Oak Hill Hospital Emergency Room where Hank was pronounced dead.
After clearing his throat, Mr. Helms began to tell Jason another fascinating story. “The burning question around Nashville was whether Hank Williams really wrote his songs himself,” Mr. Helms said.
“Most of the writers in town knew Hank wasn’t educated,” he continued.
Mr. Helms went on to say how one day about noon, Fred Rose, the co-owner of Rose and Acuff Music, called Hank and asked him to stop by his office. The famed steel player went on to say, “When Hank arrived, Mr. Rose told Hank about the rumors.”
“Some don’t think you are smart enough to have written all of the songs,” Rose said as kindly as possible.
“I’ll tell you what. I’m going to walk down the street to have lunch, and when I return, I want to find a written song by you here in my office. Then I’ll know you’re writing your own songs,” the famous publisher told Hank as he closed his office door.
About an hour later, Fred Rose returned and asked Hank to sing his song.
Hank picked up his guitar and sang, “Today I passed you on the street, And my heart fell at your feet, I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.” Rose froze.
The song Hank had written for Rose became one of Hank’s greatest hits, “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You.”
Mr. Helms went on to say that Hank had once mentioned the first line in the song to him, but couldn’t find a rhyme. “I guess when Fred Rose said he was walking down the street to lunch, he set something off in Hank,” Mr. Helms said.
Don Helms died in August, 2008. Charles Carr died in July 2013.
The songs of Hank Williams live on.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.