By Peter Cooper • THE TENNESSEAN • October 26, 2008
In early 1981, 26-year-old Alan Stoker applied soap and water to some lacquer-coated, 16-inch aluminum discs.
And then three decades fell away, as Stoker transferred the material on the discs to reel-to-reel tape. Country music's most famous voice — a voice that had been silenced at age 29, somewhere on a dark road north of Knoxville and south of Oak Hill, W.Va. — burst through speakers and filled the room.
There, inside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Music Row, Stoker raised the hillbilly Atlantis, in the form of Hank Williams' "Mother's Best" recordings.
"I had in my mind this image of Hank Williams as a great singer and songwriter, but also as a dark and morose person," said Stoker, now the recorded-sound and moving-image curator at the hall, which moved downtown in 2001. "But on these recordings, which I had never heard before, I was struck by the warmth of his voice and the apparent warmth of his personality. He had a great laugh."
More than a quarter-century later, and more than 50 years since Williams and his Drifting Cowboys recorded radio shows sponsored by Mother's Best Flour and aired on WSM-AM 650, listeners can hear what Stoker heard in 1981. Williams' 143 performances were recorded onto "acetates," which are discs meant to be played only a few times. After airing, the acetates were bound for the WSM Dumpster but were rescued by photographer Les Leverett. The shutterbug held on to the acetates for many years, though Hall of Fame acquisitions director Bob Pinson talked Leverett into bringing them in so that Stoker could do a transfer in 1981.
A record company attempted to release the recordings, complete with overdubbed instruments, but the Williams estate — daughter Jett Williams and son Hank Williams Jr. — fought an eight-year court battle to secure the rights. In 2006, Tennessee's Court of Appeals ruled that the estate owned the performances. Jett Williams and husband/lawyer F. Keith Adkinson negotiated a deal with Time Life, and soon Stoker was back at work. This time, he was "baking" the reels to remove moisture, then transferring the reels onto a computer hard drive.
"Some people assume that since these were recorded in 1951, that they'll sound grainy," Jett Williams said. "But the recordings are fabulous, and it actually sounds better than his master recordings for MGM. It's not some old, scratchy radio show. It sounds like he's in your living room, singing to you."
He was not, of course, in a living room. He was at WSM's Nashville studio, pre-recording shows with his Drifting Cowboys since their touring schedule in 1951 didn't allow them to be in Nashville enough to cut the daily live shows. The shows were cut live to acetate, though, without fixes or massaging.
"He's singing live, like his life depended on it," Jett Williams said. "You can hear people move, or clear their throats. And you also hear him talk and tell jokes. My father died very young, and I didn't know him. So here, I hear his wit and his personality. For me, I get a chance to meet my daddy, and to hear the real human being who was Hank Williams."
The first 54 Mother's Best performances will be released to retail stores on Tuesday, in a three-disc set called Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings. The other 89 songs will be released over the next three years. The initial set includes live versions of hits such as "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and obscurities like "You Blotted My Happy Schooldays" and "When the Fire Comes Down."
To Rolling Stone's David Fricke, The Unreleased Recordings — Hank Williams at the peak of his powers, transported, soaped, baked, litigated and transformed into the new digital century — are "as electrifying as Johnny Cash's '60s prison shows or Bob Dylan's early acoustic concerts." For his children, for a Hall of Fame curator and for those who care about such things, it's a smile from the grave.