Album Review: Hank Williams - The Unreleased Recordings
LEONARD Cohen once sang that Hank Williams was "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song". What Robert Johnson was to the blues and beyond, Hank Williams was to country and more, with many of his songs providing the building blocks for popular music. This 3-CD box set of Williams' previously unreleased radio recordings is significant, not just for the sheer quality and musicality of the material, but for its exclusivity. Many of the 54 original and cover songs restored here were never formally recorded by Williams, but the selections provide an insight into the folk and gospel tradition that shaped his influential sound, and bolster the existing Williams canon by almost 50 per cent.
In the early 1950s, Williams ruled the US airwaves, not just through his weekly appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, but also with a regular 7:15am wake-up slot on the WSM station, which broadcast across the mid-South.
The famously hard-living Williams wasn't actually broadcasting live, having recorded a batch of 15-minute segments in the rare moments when he was not on the road.
These live sessions – anecdotally known as the Mother's Best recordings, because they were sponsored by Alabama Flour Mills, the makers of Mother's Best flour – date from 1951 when Williams was at the top of his game and also at his commercial peak, having broken big with Cold, Cold Heart. Yet here is the man often dubbed country music's first superstar captured in informal, spontaneous yet beautifully nuanced performance, with magnificent, soaring harmonies improvised on the spot by his backing group the Drifting Cowboys, and snippets of chat that only add to the intimacy.
The collection encompasses some of his best-known songs – Cold Cold Heart, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry – plus other country standards such as Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain and On Top Of Old Smoky, rendered here in the old mountain style. Many are traditional country gospel tunes, revelling in titles such as I've Got My One Way Ticket To The Sky and Dust On The Bible, including declamatory numbers that Williams called "old shoutin' tunes" and southern gothic melodramas such as The Blind Child's Prayer which you can imagine Nick Cave sinking his teeth into. The haunting Lonely Tombs, set to an old Scots melody, was more recently recorded by confirmed Hank fan Bob Dylan. Like the rest of this wonderful collection, Williams' version is utterly transporting.
Next Saturday, the Parsonage choir (of which I am a member) will host an all-day celebration of the music of Hank Williams in the Glasgow University Union Debating Chamber, featuring 20 acts and 40 songs, with proceeds going to Scottish Women's Aid Creative Kids Fund, and also to the Scottish Spina Bifida Association – Williams was a lifelong (undiagnosed) sufferer, and would self-medicate to dull the pain with drink and drugs, leading to his early death, aged only 29. Fifty-five years on, his influence endures.