january 2009

Hank Done It This Way

By Billy Altman

Time-Life Entertainment

Funny how the mind works. Listening to Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, a positively astonishing new three-CD set culled from transcriptions of the country giant's "Mother's Best" radio shows from 1951, I found myself thinking hard about one particular old song. Not a song by Hank Williams, though; rather, a song about him.

"He sang from the heart, took the pain for his fans
Who watched the pain in his heart
Then they sat, and then they clapped their hands"

Those lines come from "Tribute to Hank Williams," written and recorded by singer-songwriter Tim Hardin back in 1967, and still (for my money, anyway) the best of the many tunes about the star-crossed life and cautionary legend of Williams, who died at age 29 just about exactly 56 years ago on New Year's Day 1953. As per the verse quoted above, Hardin's song is about the effect that Williams had on anyone who heard him—and as anyone who hears this new collection will readily attest, it's an effect that the passage of time simply cannot diminish, even an iota.

For those unfamiliar with the backstory of these recordings: In 1951, Hank Williams made a deal to do a 15-minute weekday morning radio show for the Alabama Flour Mills company, makers of Mother's Best. At the time, Williams was at the height of his popularity and touring heavily, so he often pre-recorded his program at Nashville's WSM studios. Acetates of some 72 of these shows survived, and in 1981 they were transferred to tape by the late Country Music Foundation historian Bob Pinson. Wrangles over rights to the material were finally settled in 2006, when Williams' daughter Jett, along with son Hank Jr., were granted sole legal ownership. Now, three years later, the first batch of a planned series of releases of these historic performances has appeared—and to say it's been worth the wait is an understatement of truly mammoth proportions.

Hank Williams giving a concert from the back of a flatbed truck in his hometown of Georgiana, Alabama. Audrey, Hank's first wife, is the woman in sunglasses in the foreground.

The 54 tracks presented here provide a vivid cross-sectional view not only of Hank Williams' music at a very specific time in his life, but also a window into that of country music as a whole in 1951. The range of material is strikingly eclectic, as Williams and his exceptional band the Drifting Cowboys (Don Helms, steel guitar; Jerry Rivers, fiddle; Sammy Pruett, electric guitar; and Cedric Rainwater, bass) ramble through everything from huge original hits ("Hey Good Lookin'," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Cold Cold Heart") and other popular fare (Moon Mullican's "Cherokee Boogie," Roy Acuff's "The Prodigal Son," Lulu Belle and Scotty's "Have I Told you Lately That I Love You") to well-worn Appalachian ballads ("On Top of Old Smoky"), Western classics ("Cool Water"), and, perhaps most significantly, a host of sacred tunes, some of which, like "the Blind Child's Prayer," "Where He Leads Me," and "I Dreamed that the Great Judgment Morning," date back to the 19th century. Many of the religious songs feature vocal trios and quartets with Williams surrounded by the harmonies of his bandmembers, and the deep feeling of intimacy—reminiscent in its own way of Bob Dylan singing with the Band on the Basement Tapes—is unlike anything heard on Williams' MGM recordings.

There are so many highlights here that it seems a disservice to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that there are scores of moments where you can't quite believe what you're hearing. You may not get goosebumps like I did hearing Hank Williams singing "On Top of Old Smoky' or "Lonely Tombs," or find yourself laughing out loud to the lyrics of "Mind Your Own Business" as if you'd never heard them before, or marveling at Don Helms' endlessly "right" less-is-more steel solos, or Jerry Rivers' subtle blues fills. But I think it's safe to say that whether you're a Hank Williams aficionado or simply a curious novice, The Unreleased Recordings are going to get to you. Because, to paraphrase Tim Hardin, while we may not have known Hank Williams, we've all been the places he'd been.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024