[18 June 2014]
It’s been a darn good year for “lost” country records. In March, we were treated to the surprisingly breezy storytelling of Out Among the Stars, a Johnny Cash album that had been sitting in record label limbo since 1984. And now, Omnivore Recordings has released this, a collection of four syndicated radio shows featuring live performances from Hank Williams. At the time, these shows were mass-produced, glorified ads for a Texas nursery called Naughton Farms—cranked out in Nashville studios and sent to stations across the country. They clearly weren’t the kind of thing that session producers or station employees felt compelled to preserve. They were lost to history until a record collector stumbled across the original “transcription discs” that were sent to KSIB in Creston, Iowa, 64 years ago.
The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 attempts to recreate the sensation of sitting in your living room and listening to these ten-minute shows, including the Williams-sung, “Oh Susannah”—lifting theme song and instrumental outro from each program, as well as an almost three-minute ad for mail-order rose bushes. This allows Omnivore to sell the album as “featuring 24 performances,” when in reality only half of those are Williams’ songs. It’s understandable that the producers would want to provide a sense of context, and the announcer interruptions do lend a bit of Prairie Home Companion charm to the proceedings but still makes for a choppy and repetitive listen.
Of course, it’s easy to forgive something like a sequencing issue when you’re talking about a collection featuring country music’s most mythical talent, in his prime, singing his hits of the day and delivering scripted patter in a soft, Alabama drawl. Considering the circuitous route these one-off promos have taken since getting churned out at the 20th century’s midpoint, it’s remarkable how good they sound. Recorded live in the same Nashville studio where Williams made his records, these tracks are free of airwave hiss, have a discernible low end, and separate the singer’s mournful vocals just enough from their backing to echo the eerie, unmoored loneliness of the lyrics.
He kicks off the first program with the single he was riding high on at the time, “Lovesick Blues”, and its entrancing luau groove unfurls so effortlessly from his band—not his usual Drifting Cowboys but a group of Nashville studio mercenaries—that even Williams’ heart-wrenching yodels can’t shatter the reverie. (The whole thing works so well that it feels completely fresh when they play it again a mere five songs later.) After following that up with another hit single requested by the emcee—the money-can’t-keep-you-warm-at-night breakup song “A Mansion On the Hill”—the artist seemingly rebels against the idea of fan service, ending the program with “I’ve Just Told Mama Goodbye”, an elegiac, gorgeous ballad about matriarchal death that I’m guessing wasn’t requested by Naughton Farms.
Once it becomes clear that these recordings are true lost classics, not bootleg-quality crap just put out there to make a buck, we’re free to dig deeper and find meaning in the smaller things. The silly, self-effacing way Williams introduces his plucky ode to privacy, “Mind Your Own Business”, is just the kind of small, unrehearsed-sounding moment we hope for on releases like this—“Here’s a tune, a little novelty that I wrote and recorded… a bunch of nonsense called ‘If You’ll Mind Your Business, You’ll Stay Busy 48 Hours Out of the 24’”. And the setlist for the fourth and final program could be seen as a harrowing vision into the artist’s future. “I’ll Be a Bachelor ‘Till I Die” shows us a strutting, confident man who thinks he knows what he wants. It’s followed by “Wedding Bells,” where a narrator wallows in loss. The closing “Jesus Remembered Me” then implies a sinner’s only escape lies heavenward. Coming from a man who died at 29 from an addiction to painkillers, these performances are more than polished and heartfelt—they’re downright chilling.
They probably didn’t sell too many rose bushes, though.