Review: Hank Williams – The Complete Mothers’ Best Recordings… Plus! (Time Life, 2010)
In 2008 Time-Life released the brilliant Unreleased Recordings box set. The fifty-four previously unreleased tracks cherry-picked live-in-the-studio recordings from Williams’ 1951 Mothers’ Best radio show. The acetate transcriptions showed off a directness and intensity that wasn’t always found in MGM’s studios, and illuminated a new side of a superstar whose biography had long since transcended to folk lore. At the time the box set’s release there was debate as to whether it was right to excerpt the musical selections from the original 15-minute radio programs, and there was much clamoring for the original full-length transcriptions. Time Life’s new fifteen CD set presents the original acetates in their full glory – seventy-two programs totaling over eighteen hours, and may remind you to be careful of what you wish for!
As illuminating as were the songs excerpted for the previous box, the intact radio programs add yet another dimension to Williams’ personal and professional personalities. The very circumstance of their recording, waxed for broadcast when his heavy touring schedule prevented him from broadcasting live, speaks to the career peak Williams achieved in 1951. Not only was he selling records and filling seats at concerts, but he was writing some of his most revered original songs. Two of these, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I Can’t Help it (If I’m Still in Love With You)” even received their public debuts on his radio program. Williams lights up numerous country and western chestnuts, sings hymns and spirituals with his Drifting Cowboys, and gives recitations. There’s a wealth of obscure and rare material among these recordings.
Williams performs with the ease of a seasoned performer rummaging around for something to entertain the folks, enticing them to stay tuned through the commercials and to come out to his live performances. Although recorded for later broadcast on WSM, these performances have the informality and spontaneity of live radio programs. Williams’ asides are clearly unscripted and unrehearsed, and at only twenty-seven (and just a couple of years from his untimely death), he married the fire of youth with the poise of artists decades his senior. The music is an obvious goldmine, but the continuity – the commercials, ad lib asides and joshing with those in the studio – draws a distinct picture of, to quote Hank Jr. “a young man on top of his world.”
A great DJ or radio talk show host can create a personal connection with their listeners, and Williams had the talent. He showed off his quick wit and drew listeners into the party taking place in the studio. But unlike a DJ or talk host, Williams both spoke and sang, seamlessly weaving together his conversations, announcements, introductions and songs into an effortlessly magnetic whole. Even the minor gaffes of live radio, such as an announcer’s momentary forgetfulness is turned into material as everyone breaks up and the joke is shared with the listeners. Williams’ band is exceptional, responding on a dime as their leader calls out a song, and playing in perfect balance to the microphone. Fiddler Jerry Rivers and steel player Don Helms are real standouts and often featured. Williams’ wife Audrey, who was the motor behind his career, also sings a few, but with more charm than vocal talent.
The transcriptions have some minor audio artifacts and scattered surface noise, but it rarely distracts from the astonishing clarity and presence of these recordings. Engineer Joe Palmaccio has restored these recordings with the deftness of an artisan, and the catalog and performances are beyond compare – even to Williams’ much revered studio catalog. As with the previous box, it boggles the mind that country music’s greatest ever artist should have his music catalog so vastly expanded more than fifty years after his passing. Bonus material includes a 1952 program on which Williams auditions for a show sponsored by Aunt Jemima, a musical-story public service announcement warning of the dangers of venereal disease, and a DVD featuring interviews with Williams band members Don Helms and Bill Lester.
Colin Escott’s liner notes are superb and should net him a Grammy. He provides informative and entertaining context for the songs and performers, and explains many references that would escape modern day listeners. For example, you might know that Pee Wee King was born Julius Kuczynski, but you probably didn’t know he was prone to swearing in Polish when he was mad! The packaging matches the grandness of the recordings, with a 108-page book that includes full-panel vintage photos, reproductions of various ephemera, detailed biographies of the key show participants, an introduction by Hank Jr. and an afterword by Jett Williams. The set is housed in an antique-style radio box that even plays a few audio snippets at the turn of a knob.
This is an astonishing new portrait of an artist most fans thought they already knew intimately, especially after the 2008 release of the shows’ musical elements. What the full radio programs reveal is a completely different side of an artist whose popular image, particularly in historical retrospect, was defined by the tenor of his songs and his singing. What emerges is a preternaturally talented performer who wrote and sang decades beyond his age, and, in contrast to the pain etched into his lyrics, was personally buoyant and friendly and funny. Those who sat by their radio in 1951 may have already known this, but the rest of us are just finding out that Williams’ was more than an iconic singer and songwriter, he was also a crackerjack pitchman and offered his fans a warm, entertaining human presence.