New York Daily News, 10/28/2008
By DAVID HINCKLEY
Once upon a time, artists the stature of Hank Williams sang live all the time on the radio.
Pop stars up to the level of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby did that, too. But it was particularly prevalent for blues, gospel and country singers, who used 15-minute live radio shows to keep their music in front of their fans.
The frustrating part 50-60 years later is that the live broadcast often was the only time it was heard.
Where transcriptions existed, sadly, almost all have been destroyed or lost.
That’s why a new Time-Life collection of live Hank Williams recordings is such a gift.
The three-CD set, available today, includes 54 performances by Williams on the Mother’s Best Flour show heard in 1951 over WSM in Nashville. Dozens of these songs he never recorded elsewhere, which is also true of the 89 additional songs coming over the next three years.
Bootlegs of Mother’s Best shows have circulated for years, as have some recordings of Hank’s earlier “Health & Happiness” radio shows. But a legal release is easier to find, with much better sound.
Most important, hearing “I’ll Fly Away” or “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” or “Softly and Tenderly” is like Hank coming back and cutting whole new albums.
As was his habit, the live versions of hits like “I Can’t Help It” or “Wedding Bells” don’t sound radically different from the recordings. Still, they have different nuances and some great touches.
The general template for the radio show was a country song, an instrumental and a gospel song, so there’s a lot of gospel here. Standards like “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” “Dust on the Bible” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” are pure Williams, exuberant and all his own.
A couple of songs are oddities, like the obscure, dark “You Blotted My Happy Schooldays.” Hank loved dark and maudlin.
A particular gem for fans is “On Top of Old Smokey,” which he prefaces by saying he’ll do it in traditional mountain style – a reference to the string-drenched pop hit version then on the charts by the Weavers.
The one thing missing here is more of that banter – that is, the complete radio shows.
Time-Life figured, correctly, that most listeners would prefer getting more music. But Reader’s Digest is issuing a fourth CD that includes three complete radio shows, and who knows? Maybe someday more of them will come out (legally).
Meanwhile, there’s nothing here not to love.