The popular image of Hank Williams is not cheery. His music is for the darkest nights of the soul. He sings about being completely alone in the world, of having your heart completely shattered. That he died at a young age, 29, just fuels this image of Williams as a tragic figure. On the other hand, there’s the photo of Williams on the first page of the booklet that accompanies the 16-disc (15 CDs and one DVD) box set The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings, which collects all of the Mother’s Best radio shows that Williams and band played in 1951, airing on WSM radio for 15 minutes at a time. The photo shows Williams with a huge grin, guitar in hand, a big bag of Mother’s Best flour resting on his left arm and shoulder. In the liner notes Hank Williams, Jr., describes a party atmosphere at the sessions, and Williams as someone who knew how to have a good time. “You hear these stories about Hank Williams as a poor, forlorn figure,” he writes, “But I’m here to tell you that’s a bunch of crap.”
The image of Williams as a downer doesn’t match the party atmosphere of these recordings either, the way he’s continually razzing his band members and trading jokes with host Cousin Louie Buck. The notion of Williams’ music as some holy grail of “authenticity” (and by relation some dividing line between commercial country music and something more “real”) does not match these recordings either, the way he alternates playing his songs and selling Mother’s Best flour, in all its forms: twice-washed cornmeal (once with water, once with air), self-rising flour, and feed for animals. You can make the world’s best hush puppies with it, or use it to ward off sickness. Housewives rely on it, kids love it. “I’m not an expert cook, but I’m an expert eater”, Williams says, and he fully endorses it. Disc 15 captures an audition for an Aunt Jemima syrup show that would have followed the Mother’s Best gig, along with a public service announcement about venereal disease.
“The millers of Mother’s Best flour bring you that ‘Lovesick Blues’ boy, Hank Williams”, is how each show begins. There is a formula to these shows. They start with Williams singing a love song or heartbreak song, one written by him or another classic country songwriter, continue (at least for a while) with a song sung by Williams’ wife Audrey, and/or a song where the players in his band can show off their skills, and closes with a hymn. The liner notes are particular harsh on Audrey Williams’ singing, and for the most part they’re right, though there are moments where she can still be somewhat affecting, when singing something sad like “(Last Night) I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep” or a duet with Hank.
The hymns are perhaps the most fascinating side of these shows. They show the many different ways to praise, just as the secular songs reveal how many different ways there are to cry. There are hymns telling biblical stories (“The Prodigal Son”, “30 Pieces of Silver”), numerous songs about judgment day (“The Dark Horse and His Rider Goes By”, “I Dreamed That the Great Judgment Morning”), and songs about the afterlife, like “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night”, which uses a similar melody as “On Top of Old Smokey”, played during the same session. The hymns can be pretty severe, with titles like “Oh These Tombs (Lonely Tombs)” and “I Heard My Mother Praying for Me”, and pretty strange, like “Deck of Cards”, where a soldier in North Africa uses a deck of cards as a bible. They also can be rather famous now: “When the Saints go Marching In,” for example.
Part of the pleasure of these recordings is the opportunity they present for us to listen to particular sides of Williams, to hear him from a particular angle. In this era it’s easy to take this set and program a playlist of just the train songs, for example, or of just the more happy-go-lucky ones like “Hey Good Lookin”, which he at one point introduces like this: “One of mine called ‘Hey Good Lookin, If You Got Anything Cookin’ Make Sure You’re Cooking With Mother’s best Flour’”. There are spoken songs where he taps into his Joe the Drifter persona, and odd songs like “You Blotted My Happy School Days”. And of course there are serious heartbreakers, songs like “If I Didn’t Love You” and “My Sweet Love Aint Around”. Introducing the latter he jokes that it’s “right there with ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Squall’”.
As you might imagine, The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings is less an album than an archive. Really it’s less a collection of music than a historical document. As a historical record, a time capsule even, it seems invaluable and is also absolutely riveting. Trying to listen to it straight through as an album is a losing battle. The hard sell of Mother’s Best flour will get to you, funny at first and then driving you batty. That same repetition is part of the charm of this set, though. To hear Williams on such a regular basis across a year, singing a rich array of songs and giving us a look again at the depth of his music, feels like a gift.