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R.I.P.: Hank Williams Jr. Museum

  Tourist Traps Ahoy!

R.I.P.: The Hank Williams Jr. Museum

by Mike Gibson

It was with no small anticipation that this Metro Pulse reporter chased the pale, gray horizon of Interstate 40 westbound on the way to Crossville, in earnest quest of a Grail only faintly remembered from long years past. While busy with a much earlier assignment for this famous publication (a visit to a local "naturist's park"—a nudie camp for bored, well-heeled suburbanites—back in 1994), I had stumbled across an unexpected trove of delight: a roadside museum devoted to preserving the hard-bitten legacy of Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr., the burly country music bad-boy and notorious progeny of the genre's acknowledged King.

Exactly why said museum had been stationed in this unassuming little middle Tennessee hamlet had never been established; as best I remember, Junior lives in Montana, or some such place, and the two Tennessee towns that play any part in the Williams family mythology, Nashville and Knoxville (where Senior imbibed the fateful morphine cocktail that ended his life), are both a tedious hour-plus drive across sparsely-populated pastureland in either direction.

Nevertheless, it was there, as no fewer than six billboards between K-town and C-ville affirmed my remembrance, stirring the cauldron of my excitement into a froth (Tennessee's Largest Weekly Flea Market and the Jack Nicklaus Something-Or-Other Golf Course were also touted at the same exit, but let's not diddle our knickers.) And sure enough, as I pulled off Exit 317, I saw the same long, western-style edifice, the same unfinished wooden storefront and matching 2-by-4 supports, capped by a large green sign announcing, in brash, vainglorious

Two weeks. A mere 14 days. That's how long it had been since new owners Larry and Sherry Sanders had converted the erstwhile Hank Jr. showplace into a theme store vending gifts and crafts made in Tennessee. The Sanders' are old pros when it comes to trawling for tourists, as Larry is president and CEO of an attraction that brandishes the name of country chanteuse Loretta Lynn, with outposts in Franklin, Ky. and Hurricane Mills, Tenn.

According to Larry, a barrel-chested, 50-ish fellow whose sad-eyed countenance is belied by a cheerily resolute demeanor, former owner and Hank Jr. associate James Scott sold the Crossville space to concentrate on his Nashville holdings (including a like-themed museum/gift shop near Music Road.)

With Scott went most of the Junior knick-knacks and memorabilia, commemorative plates and statuettes and personal mementos, including a shiny champagne-hued 1986 custom-built Dodge pick-em-up truck complete with in-cab bar, formerly displayed in a glass-enclosed enclave on the western end of the store.

"I think Hank Jr. himself wanted to buy it back, but James Scott wasn't selling," Larry cackles. "That thing was probably worth $100,000."

In place of honky-tonk icons and theme gifts, the Sanders' now offer an array of...stuff, and not just any stuff, but stuff produced by local craftsmen and manufacturers. Ceramic Jesuses. Porcelain pirates. Eagle figurines. Frogs and owls and lighthouses and Victorian dolls and...teddy bears. Lots of teddy bears. And brass music boxes, Native American motifs, T-shirts, license plates, ball caps...

"We're trying to offer lots of nice stuff, upgrading our gift selection," says Sherry. By way of example, she points to a stand-alone porch swing with a varnished cedar finish.

Of course, the store will continue to peddle (as it also did in its Junior guise) those two staples of regional roadside commerce: plenty of bright orange Vols merchandise, and fireworks. Half of the store's 6,600 square feet are given over to the latter, enough bottle rockets and cherry bombs and Roman candles and what-not to blow several small Eastern European republics to perdition in a fetid cloud of smoke.

For disappointed die-hards who trek out to Exit 317 in hopes of observing miscellaneous flotsam floating in the choppy wake of Bocephus's stardom, a few pieces of Junior merchandise still remain—guitar picks, plates, jackets, and the like. That won't be the case for very long, however. "If you know any Hank fans," Larry Sanders warns, "tell 'em it's going fast."

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse