Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings

As good as Hank Williams got

It’s rare that an artist who’s been turned into an icon can ever again be seen in mortal form. But such is the case for the Hank Williams heard on these three CDs of transcriptions from 1951. With these fifty-four previously unreleased tracks, the dark saint of country music is delivered from fifty-five years of canonization as a hard-working musician striving to please his audience. Williams’ much anthologized commercial recordings will forever keep his star aloft, but these newly released live-in-the-studio renderings, waxed under the sponsorship of Mother’s Finest for radio broadcast, crackle with a level of intensity and vocal clarity not always captured in MGM’s studios. Best of all, 1951 was a “career year” for Willliams, a year in which his artistry and superstardom hit simultaneous peaks. The crush of fame drew him repeatedly to the road and exacerbated the need to pre-record his 15-minute shows for Mother’s Best, rendering into lacquer a one-of-a-kind portrait of Williams as artist and entertainer.

Williams filled each fifteen minute program with his own classic songs as well as numerous covers. Chestnuts like “On Top of Old Smokey” are lit up with emotional fire, and his soaring solo vocal on “Cool Water” resounds with the drama of thirst and relief. A large helping of hymns are equally impressive as Williams and his Drifiting Cowboys testify in close harmony, and the recitations of alter ego Luke the Drifter are recounted on “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.” The portrait drawn includes details of Williams’ influences, but it’s the picture of a living, breathing performer that’s so breathtakingly compelling. The ephemeral nature of these recordings – they were intended to be aired on the radio with no thought of commercial issue – renders the mood more relaxed than was routinely fostered in a regular studio date. The sheer volume of material Williams performed (this is only the first of several sets that will cover these recordings) creates a looseness that unwinds the fabrications of the recording industry. Williams’ aside, “I like this one,” as he launches into the fourth verse of “Dear John” is a humanizing touch that shows how comfortable he was with other writers’ material, and how easily his charm translated to the stage.

Time-Life has cherry-picked the original shows, rather than providing raw transfers of the transcription discs. Listeners get a taste of the original shows’ continuity through snippets of song introductions, but the bulk of Williams’ patter has been trimmed away in favor of musical selections. The non-chronological ordering also dispels the shows’ original performance arcs, but the producers have sequenced their picks terrifically and the overall result yields a superior experience for most listeners. These choices may displease archivists, completists and old-time radio fans, but Time-Life no doubt figured this approach would have the broadest appeal, helping defray the cost of securing reissue rights and remastering the original discs. Perhaps a full program could be released separately or included as a bonus in one of the upcoming releases of additional Mother’s Best material.

Other than minor audio artifacts on a few tracks (e.g., a crackle in the background of “I Dreamed That the Great Judgment Morning”), the sound quality of these recordings is simply astonishing, with Williams’ voice clear and edgy, his band evenly balanced behind him, and steel player Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers prominently featured in the mixes. Though primitive, the direct-to-disc technology used in 1951 captured the live sound with brilliance and clarity. The transfers (by Alan Stoker) and restorations/remasterings (by should-be Grammy-winner Joe Palmaccio) are superb, and Jett Williams’ introductory notes provide a quick history of the original acetates and the lawsuits that have swirled around them. Colin Escott’s liner and song notes are detailed and informative, and the 40-page booklet (which is unfortunately stapled into the folder) is beautifully designed and filled with photos.

These are among the best performances Williams ever laid down on record, and among the truest recordings anyone ever made of him. You could remove “among” and still be right. Given Williams’ acclaim and the scrutiny given to his career, it’s mind-boggling that these discs were bottled up for nearly sixty years. This set is so musically riveting and artistically revealing as to obsolete traditional hit compendiums as the best introduction to Williams’ genius. An emotional veil has been lifted between Williams and his fans; a veil previously unknown to all but those fans who were by their radios in ’51. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]

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