[11 December 2008]
It’s unnecessary to say that hearing Hank Williams for the first time has been a revelation to many. It’s more appropriate to point out that hearing him each time after that can also be a revelation. He’s in the top echelon of artists, period. He inhabits a world that speaks to forlornness, desire, and alienation in such heartfelt manner that few can touch him for his combination of portrayal and sincerity. He puts words to feelings that seem obvious, but only because they’re plainly true: “I’m so lonesome I could cry”.
Moreso than even his lyrics, it’s Williams’s voice that captures the essence of what has made him so important. He’s always sounded as if he’s completely alone, surrounded by distance that he cannot cross. The Unreleased Recordings finds him introducing songs with panache, but even the many upbeat numbers find their connection in disconnection. Williams is always searching for attachment and the impossible-to-describe but easily heard cadence in his voice registers the immeasurable feat of this. Even on his well-known cover of “Tennessee Border”, he gets the girl, but there’s the catch in the lyrics and vocals, “Well I picked her up in a pickup truck / And she broke this heart of mine”. After this line they go on to wed, which serves to cement the impossibility of connection in his world. He’s just married a woman who may not even care about him. The music remains lively as the vocals simply tell the tale. The listener knows what to expect.
The Unreleased Recordings is a bit of a godsend. Like reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries or seeing the metamorphosis of Jackson Pollock through exhibit, this collection serves to help complete the picture of a human being we can never know too much about. The songs come from radio station WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1951, Hank Williams stopped by every so often to record 15-minute segments that were then played early in the morning. As Colin Escott states in the enclosed booklet, “Hank was at his most unguarded on these shows, because he thought that no more than a few thousand families…would ever hear what we’re now hearing.” He sang some of his own songs and covered many of his personal favorites. His backing bands and singers were always top-notch. Best of all, the quality is exceptional. WSM clearly knew to take care of these acetates, and the transfer to digital could not be better. Taken together, these factors add up to a perfect treasure. This is a collection for the obsessive, the skeptic, and even the novice, who will each feel grateful rather than overwhelmed that there are a full three discs worth of material to plunder.
It’s Escott’s note of the “unguarded” Hank Williams that really gets to the heart of the importance of this release. We’ve heard the artist from his studio recordings (with and without dubbed strings), live at the Grand Ole Opry, and even accompanied with only his own acoustic guitar. All of these modes suit the legend well, but somehow this release eclipses them all. Maybe it’s hearing a song Willie Nelson made a standard (and rightfully so) of country music, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, interpreted in a way that makes the listener aware that the narrator of the song isn’t just speaking for a woman brokenhearted for now; she is brokenhearted forever. And now, so is he.
Or it could be a US classroom staple (at least growing up in the ‘70s), “On Top of Old Smoky”, that forces one to listen seriously and not even consider laughing at the memories of the butchering this tune took as we children grew up. It could be the gorgeous fiddle-playing on “Cherokee Boogie” that leads to, scant seconds later, Hank Williamsrestraining
a yodel, sounding like he’s barely cognizant of the power of his own voice—it’s just what he works with.
But perhaps it’s all best symbolized by a version of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” that is prefaced with Williams stating the remarkable: “Nobody’s never heard this ‘un but me and the record company.” He then sings the song that will become one of country’s best known and best loved, his voice pulsing with a slight vibrato that adds an emotion not even the heart-wrenching studio version can match.
Like other “necessary” box sets—Louis Armstrong’s The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings; Johnny Cash’s Unearthed—the overabundance of tracks and shrinking effect on the wallet is diminished when it all begins. This isn’t redundancy masking critical boredom. This is all an important document. It can be noted that there are songs of loss, celebrations of daily living, odes to religious redemption, and even a couple of American standards. Hank Williams tackles all with utmost professionalism (he was, after all, a constantly working and traveling musician, never a dilettante) and an understanding of his own soul that was so strong it can make anyone who hears its expression ache both for him and for the entire human race.
With all the music in the world, arriving each and every day, I have sometimes gone months and months without listening to Hank Williams. There are all these new sounds to hear and so many of them are exciting. Then, I find my way back, and as soon as his voice comes through the speakers, I wonder why I have stayed away so long. I have even wondered why I listen to anything else, such is the power of this man. The Unreleased Recordings, maybe even more than purchasing that first revelatory collection, is a living, breathing body of work that keeps one foot in the daily drudgery, the other foot in the world of the unflinching artist, and both hands reaching out to a place that we can only hope will ease his pain, and maybe one day ours as well.