Ramblin' Rhodes: Daughters keep legends of country, soul music alive

You know it’s a good day when you get to eat lunch with Hank Williams’ daughter and a few hours later hear James Brown’s daughter share some special memories of her world famous father.


That’s what happened Thursday, March 27, when I got to spend some time with Jett Williams and Deanna Brown Thomas.

Thomas took part in a $100-a-ticket private fundraiser mainly for members of the Augusta Museum of History billed as “A Night at the Museum.”

The guests were broken into groups and led through the dark museum by guides with large flash lights. They were taken to various areas where they encountered representative people from history who talked in the first person about their area of expertise.

Genealogist and local military historian Tom Sutherland, for instance, spoke of being a surgeon during the Civil War and gave interesting statistics of wounded soldiers being treated at make-shift hospitals in Augusta.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, son-in-law of World War II hero James Dyess and also a military analyst for CNN, talked about Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State George C. Marshall.

Martha Jean McHaney, corporate human resources director for Morris Communications Co., talked about being a turn-of-the-century mystery novelist.

Others also gave fascinating historical reenactments.

And that’s how Deanna Brown Thomas came into the picture. She sat on a high chair in the James Brown tribute area of the museum and told stories about her father, including appearing with him on the Soul Train TV series. It was great to hear her insiders’ point of view.

I hope the museum restages the event down the road and offers it to the general public.


EARLIER IN THE DAY, I was invited to the Keg Creek house of Dean and Tank Tankersley to have lunch with their special guest, Jett Williams.

Williams spent a few days in the area last week with her personal assistant, Jason Moore, being taken by Tank Tankersley quail hunting around Midway, Ga., and fishing on Clarks’ Hill/Thurmond Lake with professional guide Capt. William Sasser. She was very successful in both endeavors.

The Tankersleys came to know Williams through the annual Salute to a Legend event held at Hank’s hometown of Georgiana, Ala. The 35th annual festival will be held June 6-7 at Hank Williams Music Park in Georgiana. Visit hankwilliamsfestival.com for more about it.

I came to meet Jett in 2009 at party at the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., honoring Brenda Lee and launching an exhibit about her life and career.

Subsequently, I wrote two columns about Williams’ eight years of legal battles that resulted in her being declared the biological daughter of Hiram Hank Williams and his girlfriend, Bobbie Webb Jett, and to be entitled to half of her father’s estate.

Williams in 1986 married her sharp lawyer, Keith Adkinson, who helped her win her case. They were married 27 years until his death from heart problems in June of last year.

One new project Williams and her stepbrother, Hank Williams Jr., are working on is the release on April 19 of a vinyl record called The Garden Spot - 1950.

It will be released by California-based Omnivore Records in limited vinyl edition that particular day on vinyl and in May on CD.

The record contains recently discovered acetate recordings of four radio programs that Hank Sr. did in Nashville in February of 1950 for Naughton Farms, a mail-order nursery in Waxahachie, Texas.

Colin Escott, a Hank Sr. researcher and biographer who co-produced the release, has noted, “We’re not only (still) finding things but finding things we never even knew about.”

Even cooler, Jett is working on a bluegrass album with Grammy-nominated producer Kent Wells, who has worked with several recording stars including Dolly Parton.

Williams said most of the musicians working on the album come from Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band including Dobro player Rob Ickes and fiddler Andy Leftwich.

“This project started last April (2013) and then my husband got sick,” Williams said. The first thing my husband and I did was to sit down with the musicians just to make sure my voice worked with what they played and see if we could make this work.

“That led to scheduling a full session over Memorial Day Weekend in May to lay down the master instrumental tracks. My husband by then was in the hospital and couldn’t leave. Ricky Skaggs’ studio and musicians sent word to me that if I wanted to cancel the project that I could.

“Everyone then knew how seriously ill Keith was, and, even though this was the first project in my career and marriage that I was going into alone, Keith wanted me to do it. Those guys played their hearts out.”

Williams said that her husband got to hear the basic, unmixed tracks before he died June 19. She is hoping to have the bluegrass album out in September in time for the 91st anniversary of her father’s birth.

One of Williams’ special moments was performing with George Jones just a few weeks before he died in April 2013. She said that the music video The Gospel According To Jones by Augusta/Thomson-reared entertainer Eric Lee Beddingfield was shown to the audience at the start of that show.

“I did the last duet with George Jones in March at a show in Chattanooga before he passed away,” Williams recalled. “He invited me out on stage and wanted me to sing one of my dad’s songs so I did Your Cheating Heart.

“He brought me out and I started to sing, and I thought, ‘Why am I singing to the audience? I came here to sing with George Jones.’ So I turned and walked over to him, and he stood up and jumped right into the song with me. That was so special since he passed away not too long after that.”

In all of her recent travels, Williams keeps close to her heart the memories and love of her late husband.

“We talked and Keith said, ‘You’ve got to carry this on.’ I sat down after Keith died and thought, ‘What am I doing now? Where am I to go from here?’ I decided I can just sit here and fade away or I can get up and continue to do something with my life. Everyone has been super supportive.

“That’s when these record projects came along, and I just did cruise with Vince Gill and Patty Loveless last January. Right now I’m in a wonderful position because of who I am and what Keith and I were able to achieve.

“I’m still here after about 25 years in the business. Yes, it’s a double-edge sword, and my dad’s name did open a lot of doors at first. But I have to stand in my own boots. All of the friendships and all the courtesies extended to you will get you only so far. Then after that, you sink or swim.

“If my dad had lived (he died in 1953 at age 29), I would have loved to sing on the Grand Ole Opry with him. And I would have loved for him to say, ‘Isn’t she just perfect.’ I miss that I never got to sit on his lap.”