Monday, October 27, 2008

How Hank Williams Recorded for Mother's Best Flour (Full Entry)

By Brian Turpen

The Mother’s Best Flour shows are the most well-known and most sought-after Hank Williams artifact. Unheard for over fifty years, the shows were broadcast over WSM in Nashville every morning between 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. at the peak of Hank’s career in 1951.  He was paid $100 a week for the shows.

            Some of the shows were pre-recorded to be played on the air when Hank was out on the road.  It was these transcriptions that have luckily survived.  The format was pretty consistent. The 15-minute shows usually consisted of one country song, one instrumental or guest vocal and a gospel song to close the show.  The shows also included a theme song that Hank wrote and sang during the broadcast:


                        "I love to have that gal around

                        Her biscuits are so nice and brown

                        Her pies and cakes beat all the rest

                        Cause she makes them all with Mother's Best”


But that’s not all the shows had to offer because Hank had more to do than sing. We hear him and announcer Louie Buck selling Mother's Best Flour, as well as self-raising cornmeal and pig & sow feed. We also hear him talk unguardedly about the songs he loved, his grueling itinerary, and much more. The Mother's Best Shows are arguably Hank’s best work and hs most revealing. They capture his personality better than anything else known to exist. It is probably the in-between song chatter that makes these recordings so great becacuse you get a glimpse of what Hank Williams was like as a person.

            Although fans and collectors have heard of these Mother’s Best Flour shows for years, very few know much if anything about the company that sponsored these famous radio programs.  Here’s a little history of the company that gave us this priceless glimpse into the heart and soul of Hank Williams.

Mother’s Best Flour can trace its origins back to 1919.  That year, Frank Little and Alva Kinney incorporated Nebraska Consolidated Mills when they took over Nebraska Grain Mills in Grand Island, Hastings, St. Edward, and Ravenna. They were initially headquartered in Grand Island, until they moved to Omaha in 1922. The company ran at a profit until 1936, when Kinney retired.  In 1940, the company began producing flour, and in 1942 ventured into the livestock feed business.

            In 1941, company president R.S. Dickinson opened the company's first out-of-state facility in Decatur, Alabama with a flour mill and animal feed plant.  The site was chosen because of its proximity to transportation on the Tennessee River and its central location. About six Nebraskan families relocated, bringing some Midwestern ideas into the Deep South. Alabama Flour Mills opened for production in late 1941. The mill consumed large amounts of grain, most of which was shipped from the Midwest.  Flour milling had been the plant’s strength from the beginning, when it produced 80,000 pounds a day. The executive in charge of the Alabama mill was C.H. Thomas. The mill produced the company’s old favorite, White Elephant, and added a new brand, Mother’s Best, upon their opening in 1941.  Mother’s Best was also packaged at Nebraska Consolidated’s other mills, but the bulk of the production was from Decatur. Today most supermarket flour is in paper bags that are thrown away.  In the 1940s, flour was packaged in colorful cloth bags that people used to make curtains, dish towels, pillow-cases, and even clothes. Mother’s Best bags were no exception.

            Just months after the Alabama mill opened, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the mill worked around the clock and became an important industry in the war effort. In the early days, the company tested flour produced at the mill.  Lab workers baked bread, biscuits and corn bread on site to make sure the flour was up to standards.  After the testing, the “girls in the office” would eat the baked goods.

Although the head office in Nebraska had final say-so over advertising and sponsorship, it was Alabama Flour Mills’ executive C.H. Thomas who pushed for Mother’s Best Flour to reach out to rural areas by sponsoring several radio shows throughout the South. In the mid 1940s to the early 1950s, the Mother’s Best Flour brand sponsored several different radio programs.  Some of their sponsored shows were: Joe Rumore and Rebe & Rabe on WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama; Bob Helton and later Curley Williams on WSFA in Montgomery, Alabama; Slim Rhodes on WMC in Memphis, Tennessee; bluesmen Houston Stackhouse, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Joe Willie Wilkins and Robert Lockwood Jr. on KFFA at Helena, Arkansas; and the Wyatt Brothers on KBOA in Piggott, Arkansas.  However, by far the most popular Mother’s Best spokesperson was Hank Williams on WSM out of Nashville, Tennessee. Hank sold Mother’s Best on WSM from late 1950 or early 1951 until the late weeks of 1951 when he reluctantly went into Vanderbilt Medical Center for an operation on his spine that he hoped would relieve some of his back pain. Soon after his death on January 1, 1953, the era of “live” radio came to an end.


            The mill is still producing flour and remains one of the Decatur’s oldest industries.  The basis of flour milling hasn’t changed radically, and the plant is using some of the same equipment used in the 1940s.  The mill supplies flour to most of the commercial bakeries in Alabama, and currently produces over 1 million pounds a day. It also still operates an animal feed mill in Decatur.

            As for the mill’s parent company, Nebraska Consolidated Mills established Duncan Hines in 1951 as a way to market more flour by selling cake mixes. This venture was successful, but they didn’t consider other food ventures, and eventually sold Duncan Hines to Procter & Gamble in 1956 to returned to their core business. As American households purchased more and more prepared and instant foods in the 1950s and 1960s, Consolidated chose not to expand into the businesses that used their flour, instead turning to poultry and livestock feed. A flurry of acquisitions and internal expansion led the company to change its name in 1971 to ConAgra.

            The 1970s brought the company to the brink of ruin when commodity speculation wiped out their margins on raw foods. In 1974, an experienced food industry executive, Mike Harper, took over the firm and brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy. The company set off on a two-decade-long buying spree, purchasing over one hundred prepared food brands, starting with Banquet Foods in 1980. It moved heavily into the frozen food business and the packaged meat industry, and then picked up a selection of other brands from firms like RJR Nabisco and Beatrice Foods.  Today, ConAgra operates 30 mills and is one of the three largest flour producers in the United States.


            Hank Williams saw none of that. He lived at a time when housewives stayed home and cooked from scratch. He loved good southern cooking, and at the close of every show he’d call out to his cook to get the biscuits in the oven because he was heading home. Ironically, some of Hank’s Mother’s Best shows have survived because he pre-recorded them, and he pre-recorded because he was hundreds or thousands of miles away from home. Much as he might have wished it otherwise, he wasn’t leaving the WSM studio and heading home to Audrey and Hank, Jr. Instead, he was headed to another town and another show.

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