Review: Hank Williams – The Legend Begins (Time-Life, 2011)
This three-disc set returns to domestic print the two discs of live radio performances previously anthologized on the 1993 Heath & Happiness Shows. These programs were remastered from transcription discs cut in October 1949 at the Castle studio in Nashville, and though there are a few minor audio artifacts, the sound quality – particularly the instrumental balance of the Drifting Cowboys and the presence of Williams’ voice – is exceptional. Each of the eight shows stretched to 15 minutes, when augmented by ad copy read by a local announcer; here they clock in a few minutes shorter. Williams opens each program with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and fiddler Jerry Rivers closes each episode with the instrumental “Sally Goodin”.
In between the opening and closing numbers, Williams sings some of his best-loved early hits, original songs, and gospel numbers, and much like the later performances gathered on The Complete Mothers’ Best Recordings… Plus! (or its musical-excerpt version, The Unreleased Recordings), the spontaneity and freshness of the live takes often outshine the better-known studio recordings. Williams’ wife Audrey accompanies him on a few duets and sings a couple of challenging solo slots; Jerry Rivers shines both as an accompanist and in short solo highlights. As with the Mothers’ Best shows, Williams is revealed to be not only a revered singer and songwriter, but a master host and entertainer.
The set’s third disc includes a dozen rare Williams recordings. From 1938, a fifteen-year-old Williams is heard singing the novelty number “Fan It” and the then-current movie theme “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” These are rough recordings, but a priceless opportunity to hear just how precocious Williams was as a teenager. Two years later Williams recorded a number of home demos, including the four standards covered here. The recording quality is tinny and the discs are far from pristine, but they’re clear enough to reveal the adult Hank Williams voice beginning to emerge. The final six tracks jump ahead eleven years, past the Health & Happiness shows to a March of Dimes show from 1951.
The Health & Happiness recordings haven’t always had a healthy or happy history. MGM released overdubbed versions in 1961, and the 1993 reissue was plagued by physical problems with the transcriptions. But as with the Mothers’ Best release, Joe Palmaccio has deftly resuscitated ephemeral, sixty-year-old recordings with his restoration and remastering magic. Given that these discs were only meant to last through a radio broadcast or two, their picture of a twenty-six-year-old Williams just breaking into Nashville is astonishing. Those with an earlier reissue will value the sonic upgrade, historic bonus tracks, 4-panel digipack, 16-page booklet and detailed liner notes from Williams biographer Colin Escott.