Hank Williams was only 29 years old when he was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Oak Hill, West Virginia. The previous night he had been loaded barely conscious into the back seat of a Cadillac. His body wracked with agony from back surgery that had never been allowed to heal properly, emotionally and physically exhausted from the break up of his first marriage and a killer touring schedule, he had passed out in the back seat of the car, never to wake up again. He had a history of battles with the bottle and by 1952 promoters were leery of booking him, as there was no guarantee that even if he showed up he’d be sober enough to go on stage. However, for two years, from 1949 to 1951, he had dominated the Billboard charts with a series of #1 hits and was one of the most popular performers in America.
In 1951 alone he performed 130 shows across Canada and the United States. While that may not seem like a lot to some people, you have to remember this was in the days before bands had tour buses or you could hop a plane to take you across the country in a few hours.
Hank and his band, The Drifting Cowboys, did all their travel by car, which was exhausting enough on its own. However, most weeks, no matter where they were, they also had to make sure they were back in Nashville for Saturdays in order to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Aside from touring and recording, in 1951, Williams was also featured on a 15-minute radio spot every morning that was broadcast across the Midwest and the South. From 7:15 am to 7:30 am, kitchens in thousands of homes would have the pleasure of Williams’ company brought to them by the good people of Mother’s Best Flour.
As there was no way he could record the shows on a daily basis, each time he and the band came back in Nashville they would lay down a number of shows that could then be broadcast over the airwaves at some time in the future. Remarkably, the original acetate recordings of all those old radio shows somehow survived the years. While a couple of box sets have been released in the past couple of years with highlights from those shows, for the first time ever, Time Life has gathered them all together in one package, Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings.
The 16-disc set, 15 CDs and one DVD, comes complete with an accompanying hard covered book detailing the history of the collection, details of each broadcast, letters from Hank Williams Jr. and Jett Williams, and a map of the United States and Canada detailing the elder Williams’ tour stops during 1951. The entire collection is contained within a replica old fashioned tube radio which plays back an excerpt from one of old broadcasts. The set is not available in stores or online retailers and can only be purchased through the Time Life website. While this might feel a little inconvenient, believe me when I say this collection is worth any extra trouble it might take to get your hands on it.
While there are plenty of recordings of Williams’ music out there today, these radio shows are something special. Not only do they give the listener the opportunity to hear the man performing some of his most famous material live, they provide insights into both his character and the wide range of his musical influences. For unlike commercial radio today, which serves mainly to fill empty air with noise, programs like the “Mother’s Best” shows were often the only human contact isolated farmers would have on a day-to-day basis.
Remember, there was no means of mass communication in the early 1950s and in rural areas farmers would only see their neighbours on rare trips into town and at church. That voice, first thing in the morning for 15 minutes, coming through the radio might be the only one outside of their family they’d hear for days on end.
So there was a casual, almost conversational tone to these shows that you’d never hear on today’s radio. Hank Williams sounds like he was just dropping by to sing some of his favourite tunes for his friends out there at the other end of the transmission. You can be guaranteed that each broadcast would contain at least one gospel or old time song that everybody would be familiar with, along with one of Williams’ current favourites. Often times he would use these broadcasts to try out his new material, so you’ll also hear versions of his hits that you’ll have never heard before.
You’ll also gain some understanding of the extent he went to in an attempt to keep his first wife Audrey happy. While she had aspirations of being a country singer, she was nowhere near being in the same league as her husband. However, as his fame grew, so did her resentment about his success, and in an effort to keep peace in the Williams’ household he included her in many of these broadcasts. Quite frankly, the songs she’s featured on, either singing with Hank or by herself, make it obvious that she really shouldn’t have been let anywhere near a microphone. Audrey obviously didn’t appreciate his efforts at trying to make her happy as when they divorced in early 1952, the settlement gave the bulk of his money to her.
The story behind how these recordings came to light and are finally being made available is almost as fascinating as the music itself. The DVD included with the set tells how Jett Williams, who was born shortly after his death, first discovered she was Hank’s daughter, then her discovery that the acetates of these recordings existed. What followed after that were the extensive legal battles she and Hank Williams Jr. had to go through to gain the rights to all of the recordings, some of which had fallen into other people’s hands.
As well as telling the story behind the recordings, Jett Williams also talks about what it meant to her to have this record of the father she never knew. For her, they turned him from a figure of legend into a real person as for the first time she was able to hear him talk, joke around with his band, and sing songs that had special significance to him.
The DVD also features her in conversation with two surviving members of The Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, and one of the radio show’s recording engineers, Glenn Snoddy. The conversation took place in 2008 and just two weeks later, Helms died of a stroke. A year after that, Lister was also dead. While at first the conversation is rather stilted, as Ms. Williams can be seen reading her questions off cue cards to all the men, gradually the depth of feelings that the men obviously felt for her father starts to shine through as Helms chokes up on several occasions.
The 15-disc collection covers the period of Hank Williams’ life when he was at the peak of both his creative and performing powers. We hear every aspect of his performing career from his hit songs to the morality tales he recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter.
There are also some strange oddities like the Venereal Disease public service announcement included on disc 15, which features Williams narrating a story of a young girl who contracts syphilis. Some of the material, like that featuring Audrey, might have been better off being left to gather dust in some vault, yet they all go to helping us gain a deeper and clearer understanding of who Hank Williams was.
These recordings are also a testament to the wonders that digital technology is able to produce, as the sound quality is truly remarkable. If you close your eyes and sit back and listen, you can just about visualize Hank Williams and the boys sitting around the studio on a Saturday morning swapping songs and stories just like any group of friends.
Like so many who would come after him, Hank Williams’ life was cut short by the demands he placed on his body through hard living and his desire to create music. Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings [Box Set] brings a little of him back to life for us and future generations to enjoy. After listening to even one of the discs in this collection, you’ll soon discover what so many others the world over have come to understand, that a little Hank Williams goes a lot further than a lot of anyone else.