Hank Williams: The Complete Health & Happiness Recordings

Essential, remastered 1949 radio transcriptions

For a star of Hank Williams’ magnitude, it’s surprising that these October 1949 radio transcriptions have had a life as rough as his own. First released by MGM in the early ‘60s in bits and pieces, the transcriptions were subjected to overdubbed applause intended to turn the studio recordings into live sets. Polygram’s 1993 reissue, Health & Happiness Shows, stripped away the manipulations, but evidenced physical problems with the transcriptions, and Time-Life’s 2011 reissue, The Legend Begins, repaired many of the transcription issues, while offering a remastering that some listeners found too heavy on the high end. This latest version features new transcriptions and remastering by Michael Graves, alongside liner notes by Colin Escott.

As with the two previous releases, this set includes the eight shows that Williams recorded on two successive Sunday’s at WSM-AM’s Nashville studio. Each show stretched to fifteen minutes when augmented by ad copy read by a local announcer, and here they clock in a few minutes shorter. Williams opens each show with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” and fiddler Jerry Rivers closes each episode with the instrumental “Sally Goodin.” In between 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 versions.

Williams had a few hits in 1947 and 1948, but 1949 was the year his career really took off. Moving from Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride to Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry, Williams’ catalog evolved from February’s chart-topping cover of the 1920’s show tune “Love Sick Blues,” to November’s iconic original “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The latter’s release, as a B-side to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” was still a month away when performed on this show, but as Williams explains to his radio audience, it’s performance on stage was already generating requests. It’s taken here a hair slower than on the single, and with the single’s fiddle solo omitted there’s more room for Williams and Don Helms’ pedal steel to draw out the song’s anguish.

As noted, each of the eight shows opens with Williams singing the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy,” followed by WSM announcer Grant Turner introducing Williams to sing one of his original songs. A commercial break, unfortunately not included here, led into a second Williams song, a second commercial break, a tune by fiddler Jerry Rivers, a sacred song, and the fiddle song “Sally Goodin’” to close things out. The repetition gets a bit tiresome by the eighth go-round, but the shows are broken into discrete tracks that allow you to choose whether to listen to the continuity of a program, or navigate past the intros and outros to pick out your favorite tracks.

Williams was in fine voice for both days of recording, and the live-in-the-studio setting brought out vital performances from this initial Nashville lineup of the Drifting Cowboys. Williams omits his earliest hits (“Move It On Over” and “Honky Tonkin’”) and the then-yet-to-be-released novelty “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” but features the rest of his hits to date, including 1948’s “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and “A Mansion on the Hill,” and 1949’s “Lovesick Blues” and “Wedding Bells,” twice each, “Mind Your Own Business,” “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” “Lost Highway” and the upcoming “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” These are terrific renderings – in both performance and sound quality – that easily sit side-by-side with the better known singles. Williams’ performance catalog at this point also included the non-charting 1947 single “Pan American” and the non-charting B-sides “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind” and “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight.”

The sacred songs include the only known recording of Hazel and Grady Cole’s “The Tramp on the Street,” Pee Wee King’s “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and the originals “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” and “I Saw the Light.” On the latter, steel guitarist Don Helms and bassist Hillous Butram step up to the microphone to provide backing vocals. Williams’ wife Audrey sings a number on each of the first four programs, and while her solo slots – “I’m Telling You” and a cover of Doris Day’s then-current “(There’s a Bluebird) On Your Windowsill” – don’t evidence much talent, the duets “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “I Want to Live and Love” show off the chemistry she shared with her husband and her resolve to be heard.

These shows sat in the vault until the Spring of 1950, latching on to the fame Williams would generate over the next three years. Colin Escott takes a third swing at the liner notes for this material, having written the notes for Polygram’s and Time-Life’s earlier reissues, and tells the tale of the show and the show’s patent medicine sponsor, Hadacol. As with Joe Palmaccio’s restoration for Time-Life’s 2011 release, Michael Graves erases the sonic artifacts that plague the transcription discs, and reveals the high quality of the original recordings. Williams would record additional transcription programs in 1950 (Garden Spot) and 1951 (Mothers Best), but these 1949 sessions, caught at the start of his rocket ride to stardom, are as essential as any recordings in his catalog. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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