I am not the first and won’t be the last to sing the praises of the legendary Hank Williams. He displayed such talent as a singer-songwriter his influence surpassed the country-western genre. In 1937 at the age of 14 he was given his own radio show on WSFA in Montgomery, Alabama, and put together a band known as The Drifting Cowboys. Hank expanded into recording religious music under the name Luke the Drifter. He had 11 #1 hits, such as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and quite a few more in the Top Ten; and has been covered by many different artists over the years, from Tony Bennett to Beck.
Hank’s personal life wasn’t as successful. He had problems with alcohol and drugs, resulting in his dismissal from WSFA in 1942 and the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. Hs first marriage to Audrey Sheppard ended in divorce. He died on New Year’s Day 1953 en route to a concert in Canton, OH at the age of 29.
Two years earlier he found himself a busy man and doing well. He played over 100 concert dates; earned five Top Ten Country hits, including two #1s; and starred on a 15-minute morning radio broadcast sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour for Nashville’s WSM that aired at 7:15 am throughout the year. The shows were recorded to 16″ acetate discs and were almost thrown away if it hadn’t been for photographer Les Leverett, who is owed a debt of gratitude. After a court battle, the recordings were deemed to be the property of the Williams estate.
In conjunction with Time Life, the shows are being released in a limited edition deluxe set currently available only online or by phone. Fans will be thrilled to learn that the Mother’s Best collection increases “the number of known Hank Williams recordings by fifty percent,” according to the website.
The packaging is stunning. It is shaped like an old-time radio and the back has a picture of what the electronics inside would look like. There’s a knob on the front that plays a recording from WSM. Inside the packaging are 16 discs: 15 CDs and one DVD. There are “72 complete 15-minute shows, featuring 143 performances by Hank Williams.” A number of songs are repeated over the course of the year. Some he never recorded commercially and others he never recorded elsewhere. The website identifies them for the curious.
Most of the shows have a similar rundown. Hank sings a song, the band or another singer gets a song, and then Hank closes with a religious song. In between he serves as a spokesman for Mother’s Best products. Cousin Louie Buck, who assists with the introductions of the “lovesick blues boy” and the product promotion, hosted the program. Hank is backed by The Drifting Cowboys who at this stage are Don Helms, Sammy Pruett, Jerry Rivers and Cedric Rainwater. Hank and the musicians are in fine form throughout and it’s easy to understand why he was so popular. He has a great voice and is able to evoke the emotions of the song’s stories. The fellas are entertaining when bantering back and forth. Audrey sings on several programs at the onset but stops appearing. She’s not a very good singer so she isn’t missed, and their fraying relationship is likely a contributing factor for her absence.
The shows at the beginning of the set are identified by the specific dates they aired through January and February. Then the cataloging isn’t as accurate with notations like “probably February” and “early March” moving on to the less specific “probably Spring.”
Disc 15 is slightly different. With the same basic premise, Hank records an audition in Spring 1952 in the hopes of getting sponsored by Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. “Stars in Her Eyes” is a Venereal Disease Public Service Announcement where Hank serves as a balladeer as the story plays out. Lena starts dating her boss Joe and within a week they stay the night together. After being married a month, he has to go away for three months for work, which causes her great stress. She takes his picture off the mantle, and then Joe’s pal from high school, Leo comes around. After a month, he brings over some alcohol and gets her drunk. She ends up catching syphilis and has to tell her husband. It is bizarre.
The DVD is entitled “Hank Williams: The Untold Stories,” a 41-minute interview with Hank’s daughter; former band member Helms and supporting act Big Bill Lister, both of whom have since passed away, and WSM engineer Glenn Snoddy. They share stories and heap praise onto Hank. Also included in the set is an informative 108-page book that contains annotated liner notes detailing each program and a double-sided poster with Hank on one side and his 1951-tour schedule on the other.
The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings….Plus! is a fantastic and important piece of history that allows listeners a glimpse of the past. The shows are very enjoyable, but because of their repetitive nature, particularly in regards to the commercials, I prefer listening to them one episode at a time like they originally aired rather than an entire disc at a time.
Jake Brown of Glorious Noise opens the set: