Everyone has at least one thing in their life that is part of who they are because they grew up with it. Maybe you watch a certain movie sometimes just because it was your favorite movie as a kid and it could never get old to you. If you grew up going to the race track with your dad and you still go all the time as an adult; that is a big part of your life. You grew up with those things and you probably couldn’t imagine them not being there. Most people could never understand what that specific thing means to you. For a lot of people that thing is a sport and/or a sports team. To you, it’s more than just a movie, race track, or sport. It is part of you. One of those things for me is Hank Williams Jr. and his music.
I’ve been listening to Hank as long as I can remember and as I get older it has just become an even bigger part of me. When I was a little kid my dad would take the top off of his '79 Bronco and we’d ride the back-roads over the mountain just listening to a random grab out of a pile of Hank cassettes. I even had the Born to Boogie t-shirt and to this day when I’m surprised by a random song from that tape pile on the radio I get tingle in my blood like I’m somehow connected to the universe again. You know how a smell can bring back a memory or feeling? Well Hank’s music is the smell of grandma’s house in a jar for me. I can open that jar pretty much anywhere and let the music flow through and calm me as kind of a reminder of who I am. As major of a role Hank’s music has played in my life things came full circle a in 2003 and it is now a bigger part of my life than I could have ever imagined.
My dad had a Hank Jr. concert shirt from the 80’s that was fairly worn out and I saw that he was throwing it away. I liked the shirt so much that I took it out of the trash and started wearing it as a work shirt. I kept it in my locker in my Auto Body class in high school and wore it just about every day of class when working in the shop. A year or two later I was wearing that same shirt when driving to work. The last thing I remember from that drive is catching myself falling asleep and doing a few things to try to stay awake. One of those things was cranking up my favorite song at the time and singing along as loudly as I could. The song was Hank Williams Jr.’s Hog Wild. I vaguely remember starting the song over at least once but unfortunately that wasn’t enough and I fell asleep again causing an accident that left me quadriplegic. I spent three weeks in a Shock Trauma Hospital heavily drugged and not able to talk for most of it. My memory of those first three weeks is pretty foggy but I have a few memories from it that stand out. My dad hung a picture of Hank up in my hospital room. In 1975 Hank had a hiking accident that almost killed him and was told he wouldn’t be able to sing or play any instruments ever again. At the time I was hearing a lot of “you won’t ever be able to do” this or that and dad would point to that picture of Hank and remind me “remember what they told Hank.” One of the nurses would even put in a Hank CD and sing along with it when working with me each day.
After those three weeks I was moved to a rehabilitation hospital for eight weeks. During my time there I got a major surprise one day. Hank’s former bus driver and tour manager, “Big Al,” walked into my room. (Al walks with Hank in this video)After our introduction someone explained that at the hospital the nurses told my mom they were going to throw my clothes away because they had to cut them off me. When mom seen that shirt she kept it for me, knowing it was my favorite. Through about three people, word actually got to Big Al about me and the shirt. This man who did not even know me drove from Tennessee to Baltimore to personally give me a new shirt. Along with that he gave me an autograph from Hank to me, a CD that wasn’t in stores yet, a hat, an encouraging letter from Hank’s longtime friend and manager Merle Kilgore, and Al’s personal tour jacket that was given to him and some others of Hank's crew. It couldn’t have felt more special to me and looking back, it was what kick-started the passion that I now have for music. Once I came home Big Al even came to my house to see how I was doing and even though he began having some health problems not long after all of this, on days he was feeling good, he would still take the time to give me a call to say hi and see how I was doing. Unfortunately, Al passed in 2017 but he never stopped calling, right up until a few months or so before he left us; each call meant and still means the world to me.
When visiting me in Baltimore, Al told me that if Hank ever had a concert within 75 miles of my house to call him. A few years later Hank was playing at The York Fair in Pennsylvania. I got tickets and called Wayne, who introduced me to Big Al, to tell him I was going to the concert. He told me to call him when I got to the fairgrounds. My parents, brother, four friends, and I packed into my van and headed to Pennsylvania. I called Wayne as soon as I got there and he had me meet him at a gate near the stage and took me behind where Hank’s bus sat but Hank wasn’t there yet. I listened to a group of people tell concert stories for a while when a limo pulled in with a police escort. One person said “there he is” then went back to his conversation like it was no big deal. Meanwhile, I was locked onto the limo. Hank got out and kind of joked around with some people as he got on the bus and I remember thinking something along the lines of “holy s**t, there he is…” After a few minutes the group moved over closer to the bus and I sat in front of it. I was trying to look under the blind to see if I could see him. When he finally got off the bus he was right in front of me and after he took some pictures with the fair officials, Wayne introduced us. Wayne had already talked to Hank about me and how I still hunt since my accident so Hank knew who I was and asked me about hunting and said he seen some deer on the drive in. We only spoke briefly because he was late going on stage so as we talked the crowd was just chanting “Hank” over and over. It was a weird feeling seeing him because part of me felt overwhelmed like I was looking at some type of royalty, which I kind of was, but the other part felt like I was seeing a family member I haven’t seen in a while. I know more about him than I do most of my family and I know his voice as well as my own father’s. The only thing I felt like I was missing was a story I could have brought up that started with “Hey, remember that time we…” After we spoke and shook hands they walked him to the stage and Wayne took me back out the gate to my seat. I felt pretty special going out that gate to see a crowd in anticipation to watch a man sing songs that I just shook hands and talked with. I’ve been to a lot of concerts and I’ve never been the type to yell and cheer or sing along loudly too much but by the end of his show I could barely talk; the next day either. I think everyone I was with had the same issue. Hank went out and put on what was without a doubt the best concert I’ve ever seen. He played for two hours and at one point gave his band a break and sat down just him, a guitar, and his voice. One of the songs he sang with just his guitar was Feelin’ Better, a song that became one of my favorites after my accident. Even though I know what Hank is singing about in Feelin’ Better is a different situation than mine, I could relate to it and at that time was the song I hoped he’d play most. After everything I’ve written about so far, seeing him sit down just him and a guitar and sing Feelin’ Better was enough to bring a tear to my eye. Like the song says, it “hit pretty close to home” and I got to share that concert sitting next to my Dad who as mentioned above ties into this story in several ways. A couple months later I killed my first whitetail buck. I sent the picture of me with the buck to Wayne just to show him like, I did a few other people, not really thinking much of it. A few weeks or so went by and Wayne showed up at my house. He came in and handed me a card with Hank’s emblem on the front. I opened it and it was a hand written letter from Hank that read “To Jeremiah Keller, Way to go on the Whitetail Buck! Have a great Christmas. Hank” It’s the most cherished item I own and now hangs on my wall in a frame next to the tour jacket Big Al gave me.
Up until this point, 95% of what you’ve read, I wrote 12-13yrs ago. I’ve let a few people read it but it was a little more personal than I wanted to put out for just anyone. I recently changed my mind for a couple reasons. I spend a lot of evenings digging for old concert videos I’ve never seen and re-watching some of my favorites. Now and then someone will join me and we end up on a never ending deep dive of back and forth video sharing. Sometimes I’m really surprised at how many people don’t know the talent Hank Jr. is and always was and after showing them a couple of my favorite videos they leave with a spark off the fire of what my passion is for not just Hank’s music but all music. After opening this story up again a reading what I wrote years ago and looking around and seeing all the Hank stuff still on my walls, my dog named Rowdy lying next to me, a picture from my wedding with our wedding cake decorated with his logo on one side, thinking about my next Hank concert in a few weeks, and then realizing just a few minutes ago that today is the 44th anniversary of his near death accident I figured it would be fitting to finally post this story today.
Hank Williams Jr. himself, his life story, and his music became kind of a life saver for me and an old habit I’ll never try to break.