[17 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In the early 1950s, Hank Williams could be heard performing every weekday morning on radio stations all across the southern United States. These 15-minute “morning shows” were pre-recorded in Nashville, initially broadcast on WSM (also home to the Grand Ole Opry radio programs) and sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour and Feed. 143 of the songs Williams recorded for these broadcasts survive, and last year, Time Life Entertainment released 54 of those songs in the first of three box sets, entitled Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings. Now the second installment, Hank Williams Revealed, is available.
Packaged like its predecessor as a three-disc box set, Hank Williams Revealed features three full Mother’s Best programs in their entirety exactly as they were heard by listeners more than half a century ago, as well as stand-alone songs, in-studio conversations with Williams, and banter between him and the members of his band, the Drifting Cowboys. These candid conversations are something rare as far as Hank Williams is concerned, and they provide unique and intimate insight into a man who, for as much as he is an icon of country music, has always been something of a mystery. The recordings reveal a personality that is much more lively and filled with humor than one might expect from listening to his most popular songs. Williams tells stories and talks easily about his music and his life as he performs his songs, many of which are alternate arrangements to familiar favorites, and some of which were never performed by Williams outside these studio sessions. Of particular note is this set’s version of “Cold, Cold, Heart”: not only does it differ from the career-defining hit version, but it is, in fact, the first public performance of the song.
The three discs here are organized around themes. The first disc contains The Hits… Like Never Before, from the aforementioned debut of “Cold, Cold, Heart” to “Hey, Good Lookin’”, “I Can’t Help It”, “Moanin’ the Blues”, and others. 12 hit tracks are followed by a complete Mother’s Best show built around that hit theme. This disc’s show has six more tracks including “Twin Guitar Polka”, credited to Don Helms (steel guitar), Sammy Pruett (guitar), and the Drifting Cowboys; and “Eighth of January”, which credits Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and the Drifting Cowboys.
The theme of the second disc, Southern Harmony, is Hank Williams’ considerable canon of spirituals. “I Am Bound for the Promised Land” is a highlight among the 11 tracks not part of this disc’s complete show, as is the duet with Audrey, Williams’ first wife, on “Something Got Hold of Me”. The gospel themed show has five tracks and features a moving “I Saw the Light” and a version of “Fire on the Mountain” credited, again, to Jerry Rivers and the Drifting Cowboys.
The third and final disc, Luke the Drifter, is made up of many of the darker and more somber compositions from Hank Williams’ career. A wonderful “Orange Blossom Special” is listed as being by “Jerry Rivers, Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys”, an indication—like the other cases of specific credits on this set—of the focal point of the track. Also especially notable among these 11 non-specific show tracks are a lovely “Faded Love and Winter Roses” and “I Hang My Head and Cry”. The third complete Mother’s Best show again consists of five tracks, and like the previous two, it opens with a performance of “Lovesick Blues” and closes with a version of the “Closing Theme”. The three songs in between—“I Dreamed About Mom Last Night”, “Black Mountain Rag” (an amazing version of this one, as Jerry Rivers and the Drifting Cowboys once again), and “I Heard My Savior Calling Me”—might be reason enough to check out this collection in and of themselves. In a way, they epitomize Hank Williams, much as Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings reveals him: as both the American music icon and the man.