This Saturday, hundreds will gather at Pioneer Park to honor Hank Williams at the Hank Williams Music Fest in Loachapoka.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a lifelong Hank fan and acclaimed reporter and columnist, will be featured at the event as she reads and signs her latest book “Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts.”
The book, named after her favorite Hank Williams song “Cold, Cold Heart,” contains personal memoirs and accounts amassed over the past few decades from fans whose lives have been touched by the magic of Williams’ music, according to Johnson.
“His music has meant an awful lot to a lot of people and different kinds of people,” Johnson said. “He’s more than just a hillbilly country singer, his influence is actually worldwide.”
A pioneer of country music and an icon of southern culture, Hank Williams’ songs have resonated throughout the decades to influence legendary musicians such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and John Fogerty.
And yet, his connection with his fans may be even stronger.
During her 30-year career as a columnist for various papers, Johnson said her occasional mentions of Williams always elicited a large response from readers who felt the need to share their Hank stories.
Now that Johnson, an Auburn alumna, has published them, she said she’s getting even more of these stories.
“Going around selling copies, I’ve heard a lot more Hank stories, even people that didn’t know him remember where they were the first time they heard a Hank Williams song,” Johnson said.
Johnson cannot remember the first time she heard Williams strum his acoustic guitar and croon about life, love and everything in between, but attributes this memory loss to Williams having a constant presence in her life.
“So many people do remember, but Hank has always been singing (in my life),” Johnson said. “My father was a huge Hank fan so I heard it a lot in my home … I just heard Hank music everywhere.”
In an ironic twist of fate, Johnson was born in January 1953 — the same month that Williams died.
”I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to do something with Hank as a central figure,” Johnson said. “I love all kinds of music … but Hank Williams, in particular, has always been something I return to again and again.”
Johnson is quick to point out that the book is not a biography of Williams, but focuses instead on how his music has affected his fans.
“There have been a lot of Hank biographies already, and I didn’t want to do that,” Johnson said. “Instead it’s just a book about how (his) music sustains us.”
The book is laden with accounts of the famous and the unknown, sharing how Williams has made an impact on their lives.
A woman who listens to Williams on the radio uses his songs to learn English.
Williams’ lost daughter Jett, who was born after his death and only discovered her heritage when she was 20, cherishes the legacy of the father she never knew.
These are the characters of the book, the characters of life, and Williams is but the soundtrack to which they dance.
Although the event has numerous sponsors, Johnson’s book signing was specifically organized by the Mystic
Order of East Alabama Fiction Writers, a local group of writers who have come to know Johnson over the years.
“We’re one of the sponsors, and we went around and got the other sponsors who are participating,” said Marian Carcache, member of the Mystics.
Group member Gail Langley said her support of Rheta is not just because of their friendship, but also her writing ability.
“She’s a wonderful wordsmith and she charms everyone with her writing,” Langley said. “Rheta is one of the more famous writers to graduate from Auburn.”
For Johnson, however, the event is all about Williams.
She’s simply happy to have gotten the opportunity to write about her muse.
Johnson compares Williams’ music to vitamins, saying that the older she gets, the more she needs his old-time ballads.
“I’ve enjoyed this, especially the writing of the book, because it gave me an excuse to listen to Hank in the name of duty every night,” Johnson said.
The event is free and will also showcase music by Wiregrass and Helen Boudreaux, another Williams fan.
Wiregrass is a local bluegrass band and Helen Boudreaux, another friend of Rheta’s, will bring her cajun-country musical stylings to the stage.
Attendance for the event is free, and popcorn, peanuts and beer will be sold at the event.
Johnson is scheduled to read excerpts of her book at 4 p.m.
The bands are scheduled to play before and after the reading with event officially starting at 3:30 p.m.
After the reading, Johnson will remain on-hand to sell and sign copies of the book for her fans.
The festival is scheduled to end at 6 p.m.