Alan Jackson’s ‘Midnight in Montgomery:’ Story Behind the Heart-Wrenching Tribute to a Country Legend

by Clayton Edwards

From the opening notes, you know that “Midnight in Montgomery” is something special. The slow, minor-key, fingerstyle guitar over lonesome lap steel sets the tone for something a little more somber than the rest of Alan Jackson’s sophomore album “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.”

Jackson’s lyrics paint a haunting picture. This is how the ode to Hank Williams Sr. came to be.

Alan Jackson Has a Few Connections to Hank Sr.

As a boy, Alan Jackson listened primarily to gospel music. Hank Williams Sr. was one of the first secular artists to which Jackson was introduced. His love of country music flourished and, after graduation, Jackson joined a band called Dixie Steel. He knew that his future was in music.

In his late twenties, Jackson moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue his music career full time. Shortly thereafter he signed to Arista Nashville and the rest is history. In an interview with the “Wall Street Journal,” Jackson said that Hank Williams was one of the major reasons for his move to Music City.

At the 1994 Academy of Country Music awards, Jackson arrived in a sleeveless Hank Williams Sr. shirt. The ACM Awards are typically a black-tie affair. Jackson later commented on this saying that he felt that the shirt was perfect for the occasion. To him, and many others, no one is more country than Hank Williams Sr.

Alan Jackson is featured on the 2011 album, “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams”. When the icon passed, he left notebooks full of lyrics in his briefcase. In 2008 Sont/ATV gave those lyrics to Bob Dylan with the task of creating an album from them. The result was an album featuring various rock, country, and folk artists bringing the icon’s lyrics to life.

It was in paying his respects to the country music icon that Jackson first got the inspiration for “Midnight in Montgomery.

“Midnight in Montgomery” – Based on True Events

Alan Jackson was traveling around the country visiting radio stations presumably in the time between his first major release and “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” On his travels, he found himself in Montgomery, Alabama overnight. He had never been to Montgomery before and knew that Hank Williams Sr.’s grave was there.

Late that night, as a storm settled over the city, Jackson made his way to Oakwood Cemetery Annex to pay respects to the icon. According to Jackson, there was a strange feeling in the air that night among the stones. This experience served as the inspiration for “Midnight in Montgomery.”

Lyrical References to Hank Williams Sr.

Jackson may not name Hank until the last line but he makes some references to him throughout the song.

When Hank Williams Sr. died, he was supposed to be on the way to play a New Year’s Eve show. An ice storm made it impossible for him to arrive on time. So, he was instead heading directly to Ohio for his New Year’s Day show. Somewhere on the highway, Hank Sr. died.

In the opening verse, Jackson sings the lyric “I was on my way to Mobile for a big New Year’s Eve show.” This puts the night of the visitation on the anniversary of the icon’s death. While their destinations were different their motivation and timing were almost identical.

Later in the song, a drunk man in a cowboy hat takes the narrator by surprise. The man is sporting “shiny boots, a Nudie suit, and haunted, haunted eyes,:. This line is Jackson describing Hank’s ghost.

Hank Williams Sr. was known for his appearance and his substance abuse. Williams’ fondness for the drink got him into several scrapes including be dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry. The “Nudie suit” refers to the rhinestone-encrusted suit sewn by Nudie Cohn. The cowboy hat and boots finished off his honky-tonk ensemble.

Finally, there are several lines toward the end of “Midnight in Montgomery” that directly reference the Hank Williams Sr. classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

“Midnight in Montgomery” Is A Heartfelt Tribute

Without the context, “Midnight in Montgomery” is a haunting tune centered around a ghost story. Knowing the history behind the lyrics elevates the song to a heartfelt tribute to one of the most important names in country music.