The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.
Hank Williams, one of America’s greatest songwriters, was born in a place here in Butler County named for plants: Mount Olive. Then, only 29 years later, he died in a place named for plants: Oak Hill, West Virginia. In between the olives and the oaks this native son wrote about the land he knew and loved. He conjured up bouncy songs like “Hey Good Lookin’” that give your heart a kick, sad ones like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that’ll break a heart in two and eternal spirituals like “I Saw the Light” that make your heart soar into the blue, Southern skies that bless this place. The skies here go on, as Hiram King “Hank” Williams would say, for a country mile.
Butler County comes alive in the words Williams wrote: “Tonight down here in the valley, I’m lonesome and O how I feel. As I sit here alone in my cabin, I can see your mansion on the hill.” Also, “I fancy that I see a bunch of roses, a blossom from an orange tree in your hair. And while the organ plays ‘I Love You Truly,’ please let me pretend I am there.”
For those of us who fret about the damnable, determined weeds that taunt every gardener, these next words from Williams are a tad consoling: “I’m not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow, cause nothin’s ever gonna be alright no-how. No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
Here’s how Williams’ songwriting could inspire your gardening:
- WHAT FEELING DO YOU WANT TO EVOKE- Gentle and romantic with lots of touching moments; pensive and even melancholy could be wonderful in a shade garden, or, how about sun-splashed and exuberant with bushel baskets of happy, kick-up-your-heels color? Hank created extreme feelings of sadness in one song, then extreme joy in the next, but there was no uncertainty about what feeling he was communicating.
- TELL A STORY WITH YOUR GARDEN- Imagine you are Hank Williams and you’re writing a letter to someone to tell them about something you’ve experienced or something you’ve felt; your garden is your story, make it about something that is personal for you.
- CREATE A GREAT NAME/TITLE FOR YOUR GARDEN- This could be the main “hook” or theme you want visitors to remember. I’m not suggesting these great song titles for your creation, but think of how Hank gave us memorable words that could be garden themes like: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Kaw-Liga” and “My Bucket’s got a Hole in It”
- PLAN FOR A REPEAT- Hank Williams songs are great for group sing-a-longs because even those of us with a memory like a sieve can still remember the simple words his song says over-and-over; you don’t have to know a lot of the lyrics to enjoy singing, “I saw the light. I saw the light. No more sadness. No more night…la…la…la…I saw the light.” Repetition in a song or a garden makes for a pleasure to savor again and again.
- ADD A “BRIDGE”- For your garden this doesn’t mean a literal bridge necessarily, but add something unexpected yet obscurely echoing back to your theme. In a Hank Williams song, you may have the main verses played on a guitar, then after a couple of verses, he adds a few lines of instrumentation played on a fiddle; there’s your bridge.
- CALM…THEN BOMBAST- Some songwriters offer us a great expanse of melodious or cacophonous sameness, but Williams’ songwriting technique was to share several restrained lines of meditative poetry and then a chorus that reached for the rafters. In your garden this could be lots of groundcover or grasses punctuated with an explosion of color-filled planters.
There’s one more tip from Williams for every gardener or singer, “You got to smell a lot of manure before you can sing (or garden) like a hillbilly.”
Here are some other positive, pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in this beautiful land off the “Lost Highway,” including an original recipe for spicy, guitar-shaped squash we call “STRUMBALAYA”—Jambalaya and Crawfish Stuffed Squash Guitars:
*BUTLER COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET—(Greenville) 701 Cedar St., Greenville, AL 36037; Tues/Thurs/Sat 7 a.m.-2 p.m., May-December
*GEORGIANA FARMERS’ MARKET—127 Rose St., Georgiana, AL 36033; Thursdays 8 a.m.-noon, April-June
*McKENZIE FARMERS’ MARKET—(McKenzie) 5-8 p.m.; Main Street between Church Street and Mancil Street (set up for locals who work during the day)
*BERRIES BY THE BROOKS—(Greenville) 3055 Pineapple Highway, Greenville, AL 36037; blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and local honey
*BUTLER COUNTY PLANT NURSERIES—B&B Nursery, 7853 Mobile Road, Greenville, AL 36037; J&S Nursery, 552 Kokomo Road, Georgiana, AL 36033
*HANK WILLIAMS FESTIVAL—(Georgiana) This year is the 40th anniversary of this popular event with tours of the songwriter’s boyhood home, now a museum; LIVE music, food vendors; May 31-June 1; www.hankwilliamsfestival.com 334-376-2396; “You sing loud and I’ll sing louder, you act proud and I’ll act prouder, settin’ the woods on fire”
*LOCAL FOOD CAFES—Alabama Grill, 109 Commerce St., Greenville, AL 36037 (Anthony Pinkston, Butler County Extension coordinator shared his enthusiasm for this revived Butler County restaurant that celebrates “all things Alabama” including not just the food, but also the building components); Court Square Café, 608 East Commerce St., Greenville, AL 36037; Friendly G’s, 317 South Palmer Ave., Georgiana, AL 36033
*BOGANS BASKETS—(Greenville) These are handmade baskets from white oak in Butler County; 334-303-7246
*BEST PLACE IN BUTLER COUNTY FOR A LANDSCAPE PAINTER or PHOTOGRAPHER—Pinkston suggested many perspectives at the Sherling Lake Park and Campground, 4397 Braggs Road, Greenville, AL 36037; the best time to visit this Alabama natural beauty is in the spring when all the dogwoods and jonquils are in bloom, or maybe in autumn with the array of colors from all the mature, hardwood trees, or NOW.
*PLANTING AN IDEA—Guitars are significant to two famous Americans who have Butler County, Alabama history: Andrew Jackson and Hank Williams. At Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, east of Nashville, the music-loving, former United States president designed the famous, guitar-shaped, tree-lined carriage drive in front of the mansion as an elegant and distinctive approach for his visitors. Archaeologists have determined the carriage drive was approximately 10 feet wide as it is today and was paved with golf-ball sized chunks of native limestone. Williams was given his first guitar as a Christmas present when he was 8 years old in Georgiana, and the rest, as they say, is American music history. How about recreating Jackson’s guitar-shaped path in a park dedicated to Williams and other guitar-strumming, American greats? Call it The Great American Guitar Garden.
Y’ALL COME to Butler County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour! If you wanna pick flowers and pick guitars, this is a good pick.
Many thanks to Anthony Pinkston and the Butler County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. These are the experts for gardening, farming, basket-making, local foods and all else plant-related in this part of the state. Also, thank you to Laurie Johnson, who has lived in Alabama for many years but is originally from Louisiana. She was inspired by Hank Williams’ “Jambayala” to create the recipe for the guitar-shaped “Butler County Strumbalaya Squash,” which would be great with crawfish pie and filet gumbo to go see your ma cher amio.
Butler County – “Strumbalaya” – Jambalaya and Crawfish Stuffed Squash Guitars (4 servings)
Perhaps one of Hank Williams’ most recognizable, sing-a-long songs is his 1952 hit “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”. “Strumbalaya” features a crawfish and sausage jambalaya stuffing for Butler County yellow squash that (coincidentally) resemble Hank’s guitars. Crank up the Hank songs and enjoy the strum with your fruit jar filled with cold sweet tea or an Alabama craft beer.
- 4 yellow, Butler County garden fresh, summer squash
- ¼ lb. smoked sausage cut into ½-inch pieces
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 cup chopped multi-colored bell peppers – your choice of colors
- Olive or vegetable oil
- Minced garlic
- Seasonings – Creole seasoning, smoked paprika, salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes
- ½ lb. crawfish tails or shrimp, peeled
- 1 cup long-grain rice
- 2 cups water or chicken broth
- Chopped green onions or chives
- Preheat oven to 400 F.
- Slice squash in half lengthwise and carve into guitars. Take a straight lengthwise cut off the stem on each side, to make it straight and narrower. Using a sharp paring knife, carve a small rounded indention on each side about half way down. Use your carving skills to round off the edges until it resembles your favorite guitar. Slice a thin sliver off the bottom so it will sit flat.
- Bake the guitars, cut side down, on an oiled pan for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, scrape out the flesh and seeds in the middle, leaving about a ¼-inch shell to stuff.
- Reduce oven to 350 F.
- While squash is baking and cooling, prepare the jambalaya (shortcut hint – jambalaya boxed mixes are available to which you would just add the vegetables, sausage and crawfish)
- Using a large saucepan or deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid, sauté smoked sausage until browned and it has rendered a little fat.
- In the same pan, adding oil as needed, sauté chopped onions, then peppers, until they just start to soften, adding garlic in the last minute of cooking.
- Season – Add 2 tbsp. creole seasoning and about ½ tbsp. each paprika, salt and black pepper and a few shakes of red pepper flakes – adjust based on your tastes and how spicy your creole seasoning is.
- Stir in the rice and crawfish or shrimp.
- Add 2 cups water or broth, bring to a boil, stir, cover and reduce to a simmer until rice is cooked, which will be about 20 minutes.
- Spoon jambalaya into squash guitars and bake for about 10 minutes until hot and sizzling.
- Make a red drizzle of oil mixed with paprika and/or creole seasoning (depending on your need for spice). Drizzle down the middle of the guitars and garnish with green onions or chives.
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