GREATEST DISCOVERY EVER Hank Williams

The country music
giant’s recent trove of unreleased material may be just that.

 

BY
RICK ALLEN

 

To
say that anyone who doesn’t like Hank Williams’ music simply hasn’t heard it
yet may be the weakest of arguments, but that doesn’t mean that in most cases
it isn’t a valid one. Hank Williams was one of the most important figures in
American popular music and probably the most important and greatest country
music artist ever; not as that music’s founder, but certainly its major
codifier.

 

There
are 54 cuts in Time-Life Entertainment’s recent 3-CD box The Unreleased Recordings (www.timelife.com)
 culled
from a batch of 143 songs recorded for his 1951 radio show for the Mother’s Best
Flour Company on Nashville’s
WSM and which were forgotten until barely escaping the dustbin during a
cleanout of the station’s audio library in the 1990s.  A sticker on the set’s shrink wrap doesn’t
even limit the significance of the find to music, calling it “the greatest
discovery ever.” It’s not that much of an exaggeration; think of going to
investigate a noise in the attic and finding a pristine 1952 Fender Telecaster,
a case of Chateau Rothschild ’66 and a copy of Action Comics #1 in a climate controlled corner.

 

 

Many
of the songs here – some never recorded or released in any other form – are
Williams originals; some are personal favorites of his – favorite hymns from
childhood or songs by contemporaries like Western Swing and pre-rockabilly artist
Moon Mullican or Fred Rose (who, as Colin Escott’s notes in the booklet point
out, Hank considered “the greatest living songwriter in our kinda music”).
Hank’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, crack players, road tested, were in their
musical prime, as was Hank, then at a high point in a career that promised to
reach even higher.

 

Since
Hank and the band were constantly touring at the time, some of these tracks
were pre-recorded to be broadcast on his early morning radio show. But many are
one-take, live-in-studio performances of songs not heard since they were
broadcast on the show in the middle of the last century.

 

Among
the rare finds is Hank’s version of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” with a
verse missing from Willie Nelson’s hit version and which adds to the song’s
sad, poignant beauty. Between cuts there’s a relaxed Hank, comfortably in his
element, cracking wise with band and crew and introducing songs like “I Can’t
Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” as “brand spanking new… nobody’s ever
heard this one but me and the record company” – thus giving a sneak peek at
songs that would become classics months, even weeks, later.

 

 

With
the jury long in regarding Hank Williams, the high quality of the music here,
from composition to execution, is pretty much a given. The surprise – and a
whole new level of listening enjoyment – comes from the results of the efforts
of Joe Palmaccio and the rest of the restoration crew. Working from what were,
from a modern perspective, technically primitive sources, they have made these
cuts sound like they were done yesterday – no matter when “today” is.  Hank’s vocals are clear and natural-sounding
and each instrument clearly discernible in a well-balanced mix. Sonically these
cuts match or even beat their “official” contemporarily recorded releases.

 

This
is first-rate stuff from an artist who has written and recorded some of the
world’s most enduring music, a singer who, as Hank’s daughter Jett says in her
introduction (quoting producer Owen Bradley, who played piano on several of
Hank’s recordings), “sang every song as if his life depended on it.” And the
music gets the presentation it deserves; the accompanying booklet is full of
fresh, candid pictures and engaging, informative anecdotes.

 

The Unreleased
Recordings
contains a little over a third of the recovered tracks, which means there are
almost 100 still available for similar treatment and eventual release – talk
about settin’ the woods of fire.

 

It’ll
be like Christmas in July.

 

 

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