Written by Fantasma el Rey
Nearly sixty years have gone by since the world lost Hank Williams Sr. yet his haunting voice and music continue to tug at our souls and pull us into the dark night of his own, expressed in his songs and the way he delivered them. Time Life has finally put out The Unreleased Recordings of Hank Williams. These recordings, drawn from remaining acetates cut in 1951 for his fifteen-minute radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour on WSM Nashville, were to air while he was on the road touring and unable to make the 7:15am start time Monday through Friday. These 54 offerings of Hank’s heart show a different side of the man and allow us to see a bit further into his tragically short life.
His career was truly meteoric; he came on fast and burned out quick. A star of The Grand Ole Opry, the first “rock star” some say, he was on top of the country music world in 1951 and his future looked to be even brighter as he began to tackle the pop charts. By this time Hank had already had hit records with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Cold, Cold Heart” while bigger hits would follow in the remaining two years of his life. Those last two years would yield the tunes folks remember most, “Hey, Good Looking,” “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to name a few but here we have Hank in 1951 just as his music’s popularity rises and his personnel life falls apart all by the age of twenty nine.
His wife Audrey would soon leave him due to his out-of-control, binge drinking brought on by his exhausting touring schedule which called for him to be back in Nashville every Saturday night to perform live on the Opry, which eventually kicked him out too. Hank’s longtime back pain would also become increasingly unbearable, forcing a long postponed operation. No doubt made worse by the back brace he had to wear while touring and traveling in an overcrowded automobile. Some of that pain shows on these recordings at times ever so slightly. But as with his studio recordings he left his music behind for us to enjoy as much as he did and to bring joy to our hearts and relieve our pain as he did through music and singing.
Hank Williams’ sound covers a lot of ground, pulling from hillbilly, western swing, bluegrass and gospel. His voice is the perfect vehicle to put it all together and carry it forth to the masses. His vocals are a bit constricted to squeeze out a few lines but for the better part of his recordings, especially on this set, his warm baritone stands out conveying the darkness and sorrow he hid well yet let show in his vocal delivery and songwriting. Guitar solos are minimal (although he does allow it to take off a time or two), the upright bass fiddle plunks and plucks steadily as fiddles sway, and the steel guitar fills in the sound of weeping sorrow all with Hank leading the way with his acoustic pickin’ and strummin’.
The three-disc set contains some real gems as we not only get to hear a few of Hank’s hits, but tunes he had been playing for years that touched his heart. He turns the page way back for “On Top Of Old Smokey” to the way his grandmother taught him, slow and plaintive, not up-tempo as was the recent version. His baritone shines here as the boys fall in behind him and stop you in your tracks. Many spirituals and gospel tunes (“The Pale Horse And His Rider,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “The Old Country Church”) make an appearance as to be expected as it’s the music that these men grew up with and knew their listeners did too. Hank, who was not very fond of cowboy tunes, even manages to turn Bob Nolan’s sagebrush saga, “Cool Water,” into a very spiritual-sounding number, making it all his own and providing a new take on an old favorite.
Hank treats his audience to many popular tunes such as “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” A song or two of his studio work has traces of what will become rock ‘n’ roll. Listen to the lyrics again to “Hey, Good Looking;” you got hot rods, soda, and dancing dates. He’s only a few steps away from truly being the granddaddy of rockabilly. Check out “Cherokee Boogie,” “California Zephyr” and “a little masterpiece of nonsense,” as Hank introduces it, titled “Mind Your Own Business” with its added edgy verse about getting knocked around by the missus.
Hank and the boys are loose and playful on these live recordings while making only the slightest flubs, but that’s all good as it adds to the entire feel of the live show. As long as sponsors are mentioned, no one swears, and the station gets no complaints, everything is gravy. For all his sadness Hank manages to laugh and cut up even mentioning his baby boy “Bocephus” and the song he wrote for him “There’s Nothing Sweeter Than My Baby.” It’s also good to hear Hank’s speaking voice throughout the box set. It further drives home why people grew to love him so much. Again, despite his sadness, he has a warmth to his voice that carries over into his music and it is made clear in these recording aimed which were straight at the everyday working folks.
Hank Williams - The Unreleased Recordings continues the fine work done by the people at Time Life. Here, the song selection and order flow well and keep a good pace. The fact that it isn’t another best-of adds to the listening experience. While the 40-page booklet is filled with photos and informative liner notes by the very knowledgeable Colin Escott, it isn’t over done and reads well, providing enough info on Hank’s life to set the stage for the music. A good boxed set overall; it’s one of the best, if not the best, offers to come my way this year, and to think I nearly passed it up.