“But I learned t´chose my idols well
T´be my voice and tell my tale
An´help me fight my phantom brawl
An´my first idol was Hank Williams
For he sang about the railroad lines
An´the iron bars an´rattlin´wheels
Left no doubt that they were real´.”
(Bob Dylan in Liner notes to “Joan Baez in concert, Part 2”, 1963)
“Every time I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.”
“I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, 2004)
“His voice went through me like an electric rod.” (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, 2004)
The magic of Hank Williams voice hit so many of us hard, myself included, being a Hank Williams fan way before I was hit by the fabulous voice of Bob Dylan. I was playing Hank’s EP with the beautiful yellow label from MGM on my father’s little blue Phillips record player, with tears in my eyes, not having a clue about what he was singing about, just being overwhelmed with the emotions, the honesty and the depth transmitted in his voice, me not able to articulate the experience in any other way than with tears in my eyes.
As the years went by, soon my collection of Hank Williams music included his complete output in different formats, installations and compilations, even old 78’s, even one with his autograph, always taking me back to my childhood experience of the real thing, not disturbed by all my newfound knowledge of the biography and ups and downs of Hank’s short life. The “Eureka!” of 2010 was nevertheless like a phenomenal revelation, when the overwhelmingly release of “Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus!” arrived. In a box like an old time radio. I was flabbergasted!
Actually, we knew about the Mother’s Best Recordings even before this. First rumored as a holy grail of 143 never released Hank Williams recordings on acetates survived and rescued just before they were thrown away in the sixties, taking up to much space! The acetates were made when Hank had to “box” some 72 (!) of his morning shows at WSM in 1951, less than two years before his all to early passing at New Year’s Day 1953. The morning shows started early in 1951, but thanks to Hank’s touring schedule, all shows couldn’t be aired live, thus the acetates. Thank God!
After several years of lawsuits the court ruled that the estate and the heirs of Hank Williams, Hank Jr (son of Hank and his first wife, Audrey) and Jett (daughter of Hank’s second wife, Bobby Jett, born five days after Hank’s death), was the rightful owners of the recordings.
Why Mother’s Best? The tradition of sponsored radio programs wasn’t new. Many of us know the story of the longest running radio broadcast in history, King Biscuit Time, especially those of us who love Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) – the first program in 1941, sponsored by the company who distributed King Biscuit Flour. Late 1950 Hank Williams signed the contract with WSM, with Mother’s Best Flour as the sponsor, Hank mentioning Mother’s Best in each program.
Time Life, with license from the Hank Williams estate, released two 3 cd box sets, in 2008 and 2009, “The Unreleased Recordings” with three cd’s worth of Hank Williams singing both his own material and cover versions, and “Hank Williams Revealed”, combining three theme-based discs (one of Hits, one of Hymns and one compilation inspired or written by Hank’s alter ego, Luke The Drifter), each of them ending with a complete “Mother’s Best” radio show with Hank and His Drifting Cowboys. Both sets included more than fifty tracks.
In 2009 they also released a single-cd, “Gospel Keepsakes”, focusing on the hymns used in the shows.
All three releases are great compilations, revealing never before heard performances of a Hank in great form, leaning into each and one of the songs, but first in 2010 we got the whole shebang released, complete with all opening and closing sections of the WSM morning shows in 1951, getting the total environment of each of the 72 shows preserved. 15 cds, and then one DVD including interview with Hank’s daughter, Jett, and two of the band members from his band in 1951, Don Helms and Big Bill Lister.
(Time Life Records also released a low-budget version of the same collection in 2016.)
“Pictures From Life’s Other Side” – new release 2020.
This brings us to this year’s beautiful BMG release, “Pictures From Life’s Other Side”, the real reason for this post, and the real reason for you who’ve heard it all before, to listen again, and for you, that never heard this stuff, a reason to dig deep into the fabulous treasure chest of Hank Williams. This new release is the perfect occasion, both to remember Hank, to remember these historic recordings, and, most of all, to once again listen to this extremely talented twenty-seven year old artist, a young boy with a soul as old as mankind, with a genius affinity for finding simple words to grasp the deepest truth, with a voice that can lead us both to the highest mountain and to a room of the deepest sadness and loneliness, from hope to despair, from love to lost love and from joy to sorrow, from all kinds of pain and to glory. There is a classic quality both in his lyrics and in his singing voice that both mirrors human nature and speak to our hearts &, today as it did fifty years ago. The mark of a true artist, and the reason for all the endless cover versions of his songs, from Tony Bennett and Ray Charles to Elvis, Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, John Prine, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and many, many more, still counting. Hank was born Hiram King Williams, and he sure forever was, and forever is a King.
To you that’ve heard the tracks before – the new edition is restored and remastered, but more important the listening experience made much more enjoyable due to just using the introduction at the start of cd 1 and the first program, and then the closing only at the end of cd 6. This way you’ll invited to a complete journey down the river of Hank Williams Mother’s Best Recordings – don’t “disturbed” by seventy-one openings and closings, by instrumentals and solo performances of Audrey Williams or other guest vocalists, all this considerably less interesting than Hank’s own performances. That’s why this is the version of my choice and the one I will be listening to, after all, even though I loved ’em all when they arrived. The complete shows are of course of great historic and archival interest, though. But – for the pure joy of listening of Hank Williams, this is it!
There is no DVD included, but this time we got a stunningly beautiful hardcover coffee table photo book with close to 200 great photos of Hank at different pathways of life, both publishing photos and rare images never-before-seen. Jett Williams writes a touching foreword, reminding us the words from the Pulitzer Prize Jury, who recognized Hank with a Special Citation in 2010: “…for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”
The greatest Hank Williams biographer of them all, Colin Escott, contributes a short essay about the recordings, concluding by celebrating the recording engineer who secured us the possibility to listen to this performances.
The new release, with the possibility to listen to Hank’s performances in a flow, with his own introductions, jokes and quick comments about the songs or about the band members, is a thrill through and through, and really is a unique document of Hank Williams, both as a performer and a person, in more than one way. You can’t help but be impressed by his professional ability to easily weave the shows together, combining both humor, laughter, sadness and tears, both in his speaking voice and in his vocals of the songs. There is a live quality to the recordings and to Hank’s singing that make many of the performances here even stronger and deeper than the known studio versions that made him the greatest star of country music.
He is introducing “Everything’s Okay” as a song by his half brother, Luke The Drifter, another place he introduces a song as made by one of his “closest relatives”, Luke The Drifter, the alter ego and the psevdonym he used for some of his darkest songs, sermons in spoken word and talking blues. As well as the songs were loved, the use of another name was a sign to Hank’s audience that this was something different from the honky tonkin’ songs. For me the Luke The Drifter songs includes some of the finest material Hank Williams shared with us.
Two of his greatest songs, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” got their first public appearance on this show, and Hank introduced cover versions of a long string of songs he never recorded for album release, such as “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, “Cherokee Boogie”, “On Top of Old Smoky”, “Cool Water”, “You Blotted My Happy School Days” and many more. In the tender hymn spot of the show he also introduced songs we can’t find but on these recordings, such as “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “Lonely Tombs”, “Thirty Pieces of Silver” and more.
Even if there is tons of more to both find and love in the original recordings of Hank Williams, both when it comes to songs and performances, there is no doubt in my mind that this release alone contains all the proof that you need to conclude that Hank Williams is one of the greatest ever, both as a singer and as a songwriter. What’s really unique with these recordings are the additional insight it also gives us in the young man behind the publishing photos, the man behind the songs.
For me, this set states Bob Dylan’s point once and for all: “Every time I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.” Play “Pictures From Life’s Other Side”!
p.s. These days it’s of course also possible to listen to all tracks of “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” on Spotify. Without all the wonderful photos, though! d.s.