By Bruce Sylvester
It's been said that country icon Hank Williams (1923-53) sang every song as if his very life depended on it. No matter how severe his physical or emotional pain from a congenital back defect (spina bifida) and his mutually abusive marriage to Miss Audrey, he was always electrifying in a recording studio. In 1951, Mother's Best Flour hired him to do 15-minute weekday morning broadcasts on Nashville's WSM. He and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, pre-taped 72 shows to air from 16-inch acetate pressings while they were on the road. The live-wire tapes were forgotten for years, almost wound up in the garbage, and then were held up from commercial release for eight years of legal wrangling over ownership.
The shows followed a standard format: intro (a bit of his breakthrough hit “Lovesick Blues”, a song by Hank, a flour ad, an instrumental, a fervent religious number, and an outro. After coming out in dribs and drabs, the shows appeared in total on revelatory 15-CD The Complete Mother's Best Recordings … Plus” – a veritable goldmine for Hankoholics with bucks. Hitting the stores on Feb. 7, six-CD Hank Williams: Pictures from Life's Other Side – The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings (BMG) consolidates his 144 vocals over the 72 shows. Occasional joking, ads, instrumentals, and outros let us experience their original context. We hear songs he never recorded elsewhere. A few songs get repeated. In sessions meant for commercial release (unlike these), the Drifting Cowboys took no vocal role, but here they pitched in on gospel songs, offering especially astounding counterpoint on rousing renditions of “I'll Have a New Life.”
Jerry Rivers' fiddle is a delight. Steel guitarist Don Helms' tear drop notes match the depths of sorrow in Hank's lovesick vocals.
Of course, we get Hank's classics like “I Can't Help It,” “Move It on Over” (which he here nicknames “The Married Man's Blues”), and what apparently is his debut public performance of “Cold, Cold Heart” (a song born when devoted dad Hank learned of Audrey's abortion in their home while he was on the road). We find a verse of “Mind Your Own Business” that wasn't on the studio release: “If I get my head beat black and blue, now that's my wife and my stove wood too.” Abuse at the Williams house was a two-way street. From his spoken asides, we realize that “Nothing's as Sweet as My Baby” is written, not to a woman, but to his first born, Hank Jr. (“Bocephus”).
He also sang other people's hits such as the Weavers and Terry Gilkyson's trad folk/pop smash “On Top of Old Smokey.” His cover of Moon Mullican's “Cherokee Boogie” – like “Move It on Over” and gospel shouter “I'll Have a New Life” prove he could have transitioned into rock had he only lived a few more years. Unlike anything on his studio recordings for Sterling and MGM, his impressive sustains on Jimmie Davis's “Where the Old Red River Flows” sound like a train whistle drifting off into the night.
Accompanying the box, a 272-page hardbound book presents a bonanza of formal and candid shots, including the last known photo of him – taken three days before his death. Some of the images we haven't previously seen come from private collections of his late contemporaries Hank Thompson and Little Jimmy Dickens. Among the candid shots, we see him with Sarah Ophelia Collie Cannon (AKA Cousin Minnie Pearl). She's in a summer dress and sunglasses totally unlike her attire when she became her comic stage persona Minnie. At the height of Hank's success, as his temperament and drinking binges left him with his share of detractors in Nashville, Minnie was his steadfast defender.
Like Ms. Cannon, Hiram King Williams too had an alter ego, Luke the Drifter, the name he used on sacred songs and maudlin narratives on MGM singles. Here he variously identifies Luke as his half-brother, close cousin, and very good friend before doing numbers recorded under Luke's name.
Two years had elapsed between the Mother's Best pre-tapes and his eight “Health and Happiness Show” pre-tapes. Audrey – whose musical ambitions exceeded her talent – sang on some of each. At least, her vocal skills had improved a bit by the Mother's Best sessions, which she didn't often attend. More importantly, the Mother's Best shows are far more informal, with Hank's, the Drifting Cowboys', and announcer Louis Buck's spontaneous wisecracks and laughter. Hank repeatedly pokes fun at his own songs. (“I'm so lonesome I could squall.”) Buck drops deadpan comic comments into despondent “If I Didn't Love You” while Hank mourns on as if nothing else is happening.
Another of this box's strengths is its audio quality. Acetates yielded a warmer presence than the tape MGM used with Hank so we're left feeling closer to him here than on his commercially released singles. As both singer and writer, he remains American music's king of heartbreak long after his short, tragic life. What's wonderful about the Mother's Best sessions is that – more than any other available tracks – we hear him having loads of fun.