NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In 1951, Hank Williams was reigning as the king of country music. A popular star of the Grand Ole Opry, he was in the midst of an amazing, if short-lived, stretch of hit songs. That year he had his own 15-minute radio show that was sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. Broadcast from 7:15 -7:30 a.m. on the powerhouse Nashville radio station WSM, this program captured Hank at the apex of his career. Because early-morning programs typically concluded with a hymn, it gave the country music star the chance to share his long-life love for religious songs. I’m Gonna Sing: The Mother’s Best Gospel Radio Recordings contains rare performances of 40 gospel songs culled from these radio shows; many of which he never officially recorded.
On March 11, 2022, BMG is releasing this specially assembled collection as a two-CD digipak and a three-LP triple-gatefold album pressed on 140g vinyl, marking the first time these recordings have been issued on vinyl. Produced by Cheryl Pawelski, the compilation features new liner notes penned by Hank Williams biographer Colin Escott while the recordings were restored and mastered by Michael Graves. This esteemed trio all won Grammys for their earlier work on the Hank Williams archival project, The Garden Spot Programs, 1950.
Gospel music was always part of Hank Williams’ life. He grew up listening to hymns in church, which had a profound impact on him. As Escott elaborates in his liner notes, the spirituals he heard delivered lessons on songwriting to young Hank, and his love of this music stayed with him after he became a musician. In fact, in 1950, he assumed the alter ego Luke the Drifter as an outlet for his religious-themed material.
I’m Gonna Sing reveals the impressive depth of Williams’ gospel music knowledge. The 40 songs, as the liner notes detail, span several centuries. Tracks like “At the Cross” and “I Am Bound for the Promised Land” trace back to the 1700s, while “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” “Lonely Tombs” (later covered by Dylan) and “Softly and Tenderly” (covered by Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Alan Jackson) come from the 19th century. Many selections, however, are more contemporary numbers, from the well-known (“When the Saints Go Marching In” and “I’ll Fly Away”) to the rather obscure (“Something Got Hold of Me”).
Several songs, such as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” are hymns that originated in the Black church. Others, like “The Prodigal Son,” “I Dreamed About Mom Last Night,” and “Wait for the Light to Shine,” were penned by his producer and music publisher, Fred Rose, himself a hall of fame songwriter. Hank wrote gospel songs too; the compilation’s title track is one as are “Jesus Died for Me,” “How Can You Refuse Him Now,” and the classic “I Saw the Light” as well as two tunes — “Jesus Remembered Me” and “Dear Brother” — he performed with his then-wife Audrey.
The Mother’s Best radio show recordings have their own intriguing history. They come from the acetate discs that Hank pre-recorded to be episodes when he was on tour and couldn’t be in the WSM studio. In the 1970s, the radio station discarded the acetates, but they were rescued from the dustbin, and from destruction. After Hank’s daughter, Jett Williams, finally gained the rights to the discs, the complete Mother’s Best recordings were released in 2011 as a mammoth 15-CD box set that received a Best Historical Album Grammy nomination. There have been a couple subsequent releases drawn from those recordings (2019’s Pictures From Life’s Other Side and 2020’s Only Mother’s Best); however, I’m Gonna Sing is the first to focus solely on Hank’s gospel songs from the Mother’s Best shows.
Hank Williams experienced incredible highs and incredible lows during 1951. He racked up six Top Five songs, including future standards “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Hey Good Lookin’.” He was part of the star-studded Hadacol tour along with Bob Hope, Minnie Pearl, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny as well as making his first national TV appearance on The Perry Como Show. That year also saw him hospitalized due to his alcoholism, injured in a hunting accident, and having spinal fusion surgery. He had two more #1 country hits (“Jambalaya” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”) in 1952, but Hank slipped further into alcohol and drug abuse, got fired from the Grand Ole Opry, and died early on January 1, 1953 from a heart attack .
I’m Gonna Sing, however, offers a fascinating musical snapshot of Hank Williams at the top of his game, with the gospel songs suggesting the troubled road that he had traveled and still lay ahead for him.