Country's long-buried treasures
by Star-Ledger Staff
Friday October 31, 2008, 12:03 PM
A PIONEER'S LIVE LEGACY "The Unreleased Recordings" Hank Williams (Time Life)
The world's fund of miracles might seem to have been spent long ago, but the discovery of a cache of long-unheard recordings by Hank Williams constitutes a blessed event for fans of the King of Country Music. After years of legal wrangling, the Williams estate has made available a treasure trove -- a three-CD boxed set of clarion-clear live recordings he made for the Mother's Best flour company, originally broadcast across the South via Nashville's WSM in 1951, when he was at the peak of his career.
Williams' honky-tonk poetry ranks with the art of Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday and Elvis Presley as definitive Americana, so this find carries serious cultural weight. This 54-song set of the "Mother's Best" performances -- ideally produced and annotated by Williams biographer Colin Escott -- features original tunes, white-gospel hymns, old-timey ballads and country covers not found among his MGM studio sessions. And unlike with his other live recordings, the sound here rivals that of his studio releases. Williams' pining voice rings out with spine-tingling fidelity over the steel guitar and fiddle of his Drifting Cowboys.
The highlights include a great version of Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Williams makes it a far sadder song than Willie Nelson would on his hit version decades later, with even the Hawaiian-sounding steel guitars unable to buoy the hard ache of Williams' vocal. He also takes pride in taking "On Top of Old Smoky" -- a bizarrely upbeat folk-pop hit at that time for the Weavers -- back to its lamenting roots.
"There's an old song going around here that's one of the top pop tunes in the nation that my grandmother taught me, one of the first songs I ever remember singing," Williams says. "They don't sing it now like the way she taught me, but I'm going to get the boys to see if we can sing it like the old-timers." Abetted by country-boy harmonies, he keeps "On Top of Old Smoky" more in line with the lonely-heart words -- "I lost my love by courting too slow."
The performances have hootenanny feel, with Williams assuming that most folks would be listening to the early-morning broadcasts while they were at work or doing chores. That helps lend a warmth and ease to such classics as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Cold, Cold Heart," with the latter a hit in 1951 not only for Williams but in a cover by Tony Bennett (which thrilled the country singer).
Most songs include the priceless atmosphere down-home Alabama intros. Prefacing "If I Didn't Love You (I Wouldn't Be Lonesome)," he says, "I never have sung this song on the air, but I'm fixing to attempt it, or do something to it." He describes "Mind Your Own Business" (a variation of "Move It on Over") as "a masterpiece of nonsense," and most songs end with good-time shouts from the radio-studio collective. He dedicates "There's Nothing as Sweet as My Baby" to his 18-month-old son, Hank Jr., using the tyke's nickname when he says, "ain't nothing as sweet as Bocephus."
Williams, who would die of a drug overdose at age 29 in 1953, kept his honky-tonk side mostly in check for the sponsor, although there is an especially jaunty "Hey, Good Lookin'." He favors morbid Anglo-Appalachian folk ballads (including "Lonely Tombs") and such moody hymns as "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet." The set may have too much lachrymose Victorian religiosity for some tastes, but that was his Southern inheritance. He introduces "Pictures from Life's Other Side" by calling it "a song I've been hearing all my life."
Yet it's wonderful to hear Williams sing a rousing "When the Saints Come Marchin' In." And we get to hear such sublimely sad originals as "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" fresh from his pen. He finishes that song by telling the radio host, "that's a brand-spanking new one ... ain't nobody heard that one but me, you and the folks that just listened."
Download this: "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"