Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hank Review


Feb 19, 2009

The country music giant's recent trove of unreleased material may be just that.




To say that anyone who doesn't like Hank Williams' music simply hasn't heard it yet may be the weakest of arguments, but that doesn't mean that in most cases it isn't a valid one. Hank Williams was one of the most important figures in American popular music and probably the most important and greatest country music artist ever; not as that music's founder, but certainly its major codifier.


There are 54 cuts in Time-Life Entertainment's recent 3-CD box The Unreleased Recordings (  culled from a batch of 143 songs recorded for his 1951 radio show for the Mother's Best Flour Company on Nashville's WSM and which were forgotten until barely escaping the dustbin during a cleanout of the station's audio library in the 1990s.  A sticker on the set's shrink wrap doesn't even limit the significance of the find to music, calling it "the greatest discovery ever." It's not that much of an exaggeration; think of going to investigate a noise in the attic and finding a pristine 1952 Fender Telecaster, a case of Chateau Rothschild '66 and a copy of Action Comics #1 in a climate controlled corner.



Many of the songs here - some never recorded or released in any other form - are Williams originals; some are personal favorites of his - favorite hymns from childhood or songs by contemporaries like Western Swing and pre-rockabilly artist Moon Mullican or Fred Rose (who, as Colin Escott's notes in the booklet point out, Hank considered "the greatest living songwriter in our kinda music"). Hank's band, the Drifting Cowboys, crack players, road tested, were in their musical prime, as was Hank, then at a high point in a career that promised to reach even higher.


Since Hank and the band were constantly touring at the time, some of these tracks were pre-recorded to be broadcast on his early morning radio show. But many are one-take, live-in-studio performances of songs not heard since they were broadcast on the show in the middle of the last century.


Among the rare finds is Hank's version of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," with a verse missing from Willie Nelson's hit version and which adds to the song's sad, poignant beauty. Between cuts there's a relaxed Hank, comfortably in his element, cracking wise with band and crew and introducing songs like "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" as "brand spanking new... nobody's ever heard this one but me and the record company" - thus giving a sneak peek at songs that would become classics months, even weeks, later.



With the jury long in regarding Hank Williams, the high quality of the music here, from composition to execution, is pretty much a given. The surprise - and a whole new level of listening enjoyment - comes from the results of the efforts of Joe Palmaccio and the rest of the restoration crew. Working from what were, from a modern perspective, technically primitive sources, they have made these cuts sound like they were done yesterday - no matter when "today" is.  Hank's vocals are clear and natural-sounding and each instrument clearly discernible in a well-balanced mix. Sonically these cuts match or even beat their "official" contemporarily recorded releases.


This is first-rate stuff from an artist who has written and recorded some of the world's most enduring music, a singer who, as Hank's daughter Jett says in her introduction (quoting producer Owen Bradley, who played piano on several of Hank's recordings), "sang every song as if his life depended on it." And the music gets the presentation it deserves; the accompanying booklet is full of fresh, candid pictures and engaging, informative anecdotes.


The Unreleased Recordings contains a little over a third of the recovered tracks, which means there are almost 100 still available for similar treatment and eventual release - talk about settin' the woods of fire.


It'll be like Christmas in July.

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