Deal Paves Way For Hank Williams Treasure Trove
September 26, 2008 , 11:00 AM ET
Ken Tucker, Nashville
It took a fortuitous find and years of legal wrangling, but some of Hank Williams' lesser-known recordings will soon be available for mass consumption. "The Unreleased Recordings" includes performances from the "Mother's Best Flour" radio program, which Williams hosted on the legendary WSM-AM Nashville in 1951.
Time Life will release the 143 recordings in various packages in the next three years through an exclusive agreement with the Williams estate. The first set is due Oct. 28.
Williams and his band prerecorded 72 shows to run while they were on tour. The shows were recorded on 16-inch acetate discs that were later thrown into the trash during a station move in the '60s but salvaged by WSM employee Les Leverett.
In the '80s, Jerry Rivers, who played fiddle for Williams as part of the Drifting Cowboy Band and later backed daughter Jett Williams, told her about the "Mother's Best" show. He then introduced her to Leverett, who turned over the original acetates.
But getting the rights to the music wasn't simple. "I had possession of the acetates but they had already been duplicated way before I had entered the picture," Williams says.
Indeed they had. PolyGram Records claimed exclusive rights relying on Williams' contract with its predecessor in interest, MGM Records. Meanwhile, Legacy Entertainment claimed rights to the recordings under a chain of title. At one point Leverett had assigned his rights to former Drifting Cowboy Hillous Butrum, who had in turn sold them to Legacy, which had actually replaced the Drifting Cowboys with another band on its version. A series of courts eventually ruled in favor of the Williams estate, ending an eight-year legal battle.
Williams says that even devotees of her father's music will find something new here. "Unless you were listening that morning in 1951, you've never heard that version of 'Cold, Cold Heart,' " she says. "You may have heard the master, but you've never heard the Feb. 3, 1951, version of Hank Williams singing it.
"The fidelity of these recordings are better than his MGM masters," she says. "These have not been enhanced or tinkered with. It's as if it was 1951 and my dad was recording it right then. It was a one-time take."
In addition to Williams' best-known material, the recordings include 40 songs he was never known to have performed and others he never recorded commercially, including "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Cherokee Boogie" and "On Top of Old Smoky."