|Publication:Arkansas Democrat-Gazette;||Date:Dec 16, 2008;||Section:Style;||Page Number:29|
POP NOTES Best new thing in country could be old (cowboy) hat BY ELLIS WIDNER ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
What is arguably the best recording in country music released this year is 57 years old. Another contender is two new albums by an 81-year-old who was half of one of the most admired brother acts in country music history. The artists: Hank Williams and Charlie Louvin. Williams, whose short career — just six years — defined country music, injecting it with an emotional passion, an everyman sensibility, songs with spare and heartfelt lyrics and a psychic turbulence that moved from the heart to the barroom to the church. The writer of classics such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and others is so revered as a songwriter that Williams the singer has nearly been lost. No longer. The 54 songs on The Unreleased Recordings (three CDs, Time/Life, $39.98) reveal Williams to be a singer of rare interpretive gifts, who so thoroughly inhabits a song that whether he wrote it or not is almost irrelevant. His compelling performances make it clear, whether he wrote ’em or not, he owns them at that particular moment.
These treasures are from a 15-minute radio show Williams performed in 1951 with his band, The Drifting Cowboys. The transcriptions contain 143 songs and were thought lost, acquiring an aura of a sort of musical holy grail. But what was lost was found, and after several years of legal negotiations, we have this astounding boxed set, which is rich and historic, yet wonderfully alive and vital.
As with Bob Wills’ wondrous Tiffany Transcriptions (which are to be reissued in a 10-CD boxed set Jan. 27 by Collectors’ Choice), these are casual recordings that reveal a charming playfulness in Williams’ personality and a captivating, spontaneous musicality.
In this relaxed setting, Williams’ phrasing is edgier, more personal than his studio work. Unreleased offers the most revealing look at Williams the singer since the Country Music Foundation began issuing Williams’ demos in 1990 — Just Me and My Guitar and The First Recordings, which were combined on CD as Rare Demos: First to Last in 2000.
Unreleased shows Williams’ sense of humor, displayed in his introduction of “Hey, Good Lookin’” during which he slips in the sponsor’s name (Mother’s Best Flour) into the lyric and adds “Well, I ain’t good lookin’, but I’m gonna start cookin’,” and does just that as he and the band break into the song.
Another enjoyable segment is his talk with the band members about learning “On Top of Old Smoky” from his grandmother, and he and the band perform a slower, compelling take of the song popularized by Burl Ives in 1949 and The Weavers in 1951.
While Williams plays a number of his own songs, most of the tunes are by other writers. There’s Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” a careerdefining hit for Willie Nelson; the exquisite “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” written by Scotty Wiseman and a huge hit for cowboy singers Tex Ritter and Gene Autry; and gospel classics such as Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” plus “Dust on the Bible” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
But the best track? It just may be his cover of the Sons of the Pioneers’ hit “Cool Water,” a Bob Nolan song that has been sung around many a campfire, but rarely with the depth Williams brings to it. His desolate voice embodies the song’s loneliness and amplifies its spiritual/ psychological metaphors.
Williams and the Drifting Cowboys are wonderfully spontaneous here; the story goes that band members often played songs that hadn’t been rehearsed, and usually with no set list. But if the band is caught off-guard by Williams (Bob Wills used to “call” the Texas Playboys’ sets on the fly), the players show a striking confidence in their skills.
Thanks to The Unreleased Recordings, country fans should hopefully discover, or rediscover Williams as a singer of rare interpretive gifts. This boxed set brings new depth and perspective to our understanding of Hank Williams the artist, and the human being.