This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the birth of famed country music legend, Hank Williams! American singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the 1950s, Hank Williams is arguably country music’s first superstar – and certainly one of the most famous.
Born September 17, 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama, Hank Williams had humble roots but was destined to be a legend. After picking up his first guitar as a child, Hank was quick to learn the blues and shot to fame at just 26 years old.
In June of 1949, Hank Williams moved to Nashville and rose to fame that same year after his hit song, “Lovesick Blues”. He had 11 hits to make it as No.1 on the country music Billboard, including “Hey, Good Lookin’”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”.
But all that fame never kept Hank from coming home to Alabama. He often visited Alexander City, home of Lake Martin, and found inspiration here for what might be one of his most famous songs ever written, “Kaw-liga”.
Hank’s Childhood Home – Sweet Home Alabama
Hank Williams’ boyhood home is located in the small town Georgiana, Alabama. This house, built in the 1850’s, is the only home remaining that Hank Williams lived in before becoming a famous country music legend.
Hank Williams lived in this house for just a short time, from 1931 to 1934. However, it was during this time that Hank received his first guitar when he was just eight years old, believed to be purchased by his mother. As a young boy, Hank was taught the blues by local street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and played for tips on the street.
The house is now a museum and displays memorabilia, artifacts, pictures and some of the singer’s personal belongings.
Hank Williams and Lake Martin, Alabama
Hank Williams has quite the historical past at Lake Martin, Alabama.
The area’s claim to country fame is being the birthplace of perhaps one of Hank Williams’ most famous songs ever recorded, “Kaw-Liga”.
The song tells the story of a wooden Indian, named Kaw-Liga, who falls in love with a beautiful maiden across the street. Being made of wood, Kaw-Liga is never able to speak of his love to the maiden. Then one day, the maiden is taken far away, leaving Kaw-Liga heartbroken and forever alone.
This song was inspired during Hank Williams’ stay at Lake Martin and heavily influenced by the surrounding area’s history, local legends, and a nearby restaurant.
The Story of Hank’s Hit Song, “Kaw-Liga”
As the story goes, in August 1952 Hank Williams’ mother called a longtime friend of Hank’s, Richard “Bob” McKinney, saying Hank was extremely tired and wanted to get away for a week’s rest.
McKinney had often urged Hank to come stay at his cabin at Lake Martin, however, at the time it was being rented out. So instead, McKinney called another friend, Darwin Dobbs, and asked if the two could stay at his cabin for some rest and relaxation. This is where the magic of “Kaw-liga” would later happen.
During the coming days of their stay, McKinney and Williams would often wander through the woods and sit on the banks of Lake Martin to talk. It was at this time that McKinney told Hank the mythical legend of Kaw-Liga, just as it had been taught to him by locals growing up. This story seemed to strike a note with Hank.
During their time together, McKinney had also noticed that Hank Williams was seemingly emotional during sunset, with tears often coming to his eyes. After one sunset in particular, Hank commented to McKinney that sunset was the lonesomest time of the day, and that he could feel a song building up.
That same night, the two drove into town for groceries and Hank began beating out a rhythm on the dashboard of the car. By the time they returned to the cabin, Hank told McKinney that he had a song he wanted to try out. They went inside the cabin and Hank pulled out his guitar, proceeding to play out his first rendition of “Kaw-Liga”.
It was here that the beginnings of the iconic song took form.
That November, Hank Williams met up with his manager, Fred Rose, to discuss his next recording session. As Hank laid out his version of his song of Kaw-liga, Rose suggested changing the lyrics to make Kaw-Liga a wooden Indian. Hank took a liking to this change, and the rest is history.
Hank Williams recorded “Kaw-Liga” on his final album in 1952, only months before his passing on New Year’s Day in 1953. Following his death, the song became a huge hit and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart, remaining at the top for fourteen weeks.
Following the overwhelming success of the song, fans soon flocked to Kowaliga restaurant at Lake Martin to see the famous wooden Indian that Hank sang about. There was, of course, no wooden Indian at the time. Due to the high demand, the owners of the restaurant finally purchased a wooden Indian from a local Pontiac car dealership and placed it out front, so Hank Williams fans could finally visit the famous Indian in person. A few versions later, the Indian still stands tall for visitors to see today.
Hank William’s Cabin
The famous cabin that Hank Williams stayed at during his visit to Lake Martin now resides at Children’s Harbor, a children’s camp located on the shores of Lake Martin. Inside, the cabin has been completely refurbished to look much like the original cabin would have in 1952.
Many would say it is almost an exact replica.
A photo of the original living room hangs on the walls of the cabin, and has an uncanny resemblance to what visitors would see today. Many of the items within the cabin were found at the local thrift store, including the furniture and miscellaneous decor. One of my favorite pieces inside is the old timey clock radio, which in fact still works.
The cabin itself is made up of two bedrooms with twin beds, one bathroom, and an open spaced kitchen and living room. Who knew the cabins in the 1950’s would be so trendy today? The living room leads out to a large white porch, which overlooks the beautiful waters of Lake Martin.
Though not currently open to the public for tours, “Hank Williams Cabin” is a treasured icon to the area and is well maintained by Children’s Harbor. You can read more about the cabin in our article here: Hank Williams Cabin.
Today, Kowaliga Restaurant is a popular destination for locals and visitors alike. With its charming blend of nostalgia and lake-inspired decor, Kowaliga pays tribute to Hank Williams with displays of memorabilia and photographs, all while still capturing the laid back beauty of Lake Martin itself.
Kowaliga sits on the waterfront shorelines of Lake Martin and offers guests breathtaking views while they dine and, of course, photo opportunities with the wooden Indian. Kowaliga creates an unbeatable atmosphere to relax, unwind, and reminisce about the great country music legend.
As we celebrate 100 years of Hank Williams, Lake Martin is proud and honored to be such a tremendous part of the history and folk stories surrounding one of country music’s greatest legends. Happy Birthday Hank Williams!