TimeLife has just released the 3-CD set, Hank Williams: The Legend Begins, and what a treasure it is! From the very first (and previously unreleased) recordings Hank made as a 15-year-old, to four other unreleased songs from two years later in 1940, when he was a “kid singer” on the radio, that are on the set courtesy of Hank’s daughter Jett, to the complete collection of the Health and Happiness radio programs, this is not only an unprecedented piece of musical history, but an extremely enjoyable one as well.
While the unreleased material is mainly interesting only from a historical point of view, the radio programs reveal a remarkably at ease, charming performer who treated the audience as his friends and delivered his lines as smoothly as he did his songs. It also reminds us what a great band Williams had in the Drifting Cowboys, especially the spectacular fiddle player, Jerry Rivers.
The sound quality is extremely good, and much better than it would ever have sounded to its original radio audience, I am sure. Each short program is introduced by the “Lonesome Cowboy” theme song, and each features a song or duet by Hank and his wife Audrey, who must have had mixed feelings listening to Hank sing the songs he so clearly wrote about their stormy relationship. Audrey’s voice is not a great one, or even a good one. The songs that she sings are the weak spots on the CD, but they illustrate the amount of power Audrey held in the relationship, and how much she wanted to be a part of Hank’s career.
Many of the best known Hank Williams songs are represented here, done live for the radio with all the depth of feeling that made Williams the great star he was. Most of his songs, even the gospel numbers and the humorous ones, reflect the emotional turmoil that led him to self-destruct at the height of his career at the age of 29, as so many musicians have before and since then.
There are stellar versions here of “Lovesick Blues,” “Wedding Bells,” “Mind Your Own Business” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” one of the most evocative songs of loneliness ever written. Each program contained a gospel song, and here Williams’ own “I Saw the Light” is one of the few truly hopeful songs on the set, with its joyful chorus perfect for singing along.
Another standout among the gospel songs is “Lost Highway,” which seems to mirror how Williams must have viewed his own journey through life, as he found fame but no lasting happiness. He also received overwhelming love from his fans, but nothing that got him through it all except alcohol. “And now I’m lost, too late to pray,” he would say.
But my personal favorite, and one of my favorite songs on the CD set is the deeply touching, plaintive “Tramp on the Street.” Williams had written an arrangement of this song which was recorded by country singer Molly O’Day. Music publisher Fred Rose heard it and asked her where she found the song. She told him she got it from the late legend, and he asked if he had any more songs.
That was the start of Hank Williams’ career as a songwriter, even though he did not write this particular song, only the arrangement. This is the only known recording of Williams singing the song, and it is just perfect, one of the most compelling parables in song I have ever heard.
Over all, this 3-CD set is the perfect collection for any Hank Williams fan and the ideal introduction to Williams for new audiences. It is also a great chance to get to know more about the charming man behind the music, who could hide his personal problems and be friendly, witty, and imminently likeable in his patter with the band, his wife Audrey, and in the way he addressed his audience. The CDs span over 12 years, from 1938 to 1951, and clearly illustrate that Hank Williams was, in every way, a star and a major influence in many areas of American music.