Turn Back the Years might stretch things just a bit by calling itself an “Essential” collection. Any truly essential Hank Williams collection would include classics like “Mind Your Own Business”, “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive”, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”, and a few others. However, songs like those arguably don’t fit Turn Back the Years‘s disc-spanning themes of “Honky Tonkin’” (kickin’ up your heels at the bar), “Cold, Cold Heart” (lamenting love gone south), or “I Saw the Light” (unadorned gospel). Holding 60 slices of archetypal country, this set sticks to its mission.
Much like 2000’s Love, God, Murder reappraisal of Johnny Cash, Turn Back the Years attempts to wrestle Williams’ body of work into manageable chunks, to show that this wasn’t a guy who just churned out country songs indiscriminately, but an artist who documented the major facets of his life. Make no mistake, Williams was savvy to the demands of the marketplace and his paycheck, but Turn Back the Years reinforces the case for Williams as a songwriter and performer whose life and art were tightly intertwined. In light of Williams’ end—dying in the back of a Cadillac with a vitamin/morphine mix in his veins and a whiskey bottle in his hands—perhaps too much so.
The thematic approach coalesces on the “Cold, Cold Heart” disc, especially if you’re aware of Williams’ troubled relationship with his first wife, Audrey (not to worry—excellent liner notes take care of this background info). Back before every country song had to have a pun in the title, Williams wrote vivid songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “I Can’t Escape From You”, Your Cheatin’ Heart”, and “My Love For You (Has Turned to Hate)”. Most likely, Williams supplied only his side of the story in many of these songs, but the raw nerve he touched was universal, and helped transform him into a superstar.
In light of “Cold, Cold Heart”, it’s hard to listen to the “Honky Tonkin’” disc without a bittersweet brand of enjoyment, while compassionate listeners might hope that the songs on “I Saw the Light” provided Williams with some form of solace. Keeping things from becoming sharply defined, though, is the fact that for every “Honky Tonkin’” or “Hey, Good Lookin’” there’s a sombre “Moanin’ the Blues” or “There’s a Tear in My Beer”; for every “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life)” or “I Saw the Light” there’s a stark meditation on the pains of mortality like “Angel of Death” or “House of Gold”. Suitably, the lines between earthly fun, earthly pain, and heavenly reward can be as messy here as they probably were in Williams’s life.
In short, Turn Back the Years is a really nice collection that does a bit of a service to Williams’s legacy. Not only does it present the songs in a way that makes you view them in a different light, but its scope is such that it also shines a spotlight on a ton of relatively obscure songs (especially the numbers he recorded as Luke the Drifter). As much as the hits are always a fine listen, the less well-known songs are probably a bit of an education for the casual Williams listener—you don’t hear most of these on the radio. The set also includes a nicely informative set of liner notes by Colin Escott, who offers biographical context for many of the songs (and includes many nice tidbits, such as the politics of writing songs for the jukebox industry back in those early days).
In light of modern country, it’s probably easy for many people to dismiss Hank Williams as merely the father of something disposable. Obviously, that would be a mistake—someone selling cookie-cutter paintings of seascapes and sailboats doesn’t suddenly invalidate the Cave of Lascaux or the Bayeux Tapestry. There’s never a bad time to be reminded that Hank Williams’s songs are legitimate classics, a job that Turn Back the Years performs admirably.