Music Review: Hank Williams -Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings
Once upon a time there was no such thing as cable, satellites, or the Internet - not even dial up let alone DSL. In those days televisions and radio stations relied on individuals owning antennas on their houses that would reach up into the sky and pick off signals as they'd pass by. Thirty years ago I still used to be able to lay in bed on cold clear night in Toronto Ontario and pick up radio stations in Chicago and Detroit that managed to punch through the crisp air with blues and R&B we never heard up north.
Now a days you can't turn a radio dial without hitting noise of some sort at every point on either the FM or the AM band. Yet at one time there used to be such a thing as dead air on the radio - when all there would be is silence. In rural communities in the States, especially in the South, a housewife's day would be well underway before the first programming of the day started up. At around 7:00 am every morning with the husband headed out the door to start work on the back forty, or tending the livestock in the barns, and the kids off to school, she'd be over the sink up to her elbows in soap suds when the voice of Cousin Louis Buck would come over the radio. That was the signal for the start of fifteen minutes of Hank Williams on Nashville's WSM radio station - home station of the Grand Ole Oprey - brought to her by Mother's Best flour and feed.
In 1951 when Hank Williams wasn't on the road, and had a spare moment or two, he'd be in a studio in Nashville pre-recording fifteen minute morning shows that would be broadcast Monday to Friday across the South. Seventy-two of these tapes have managed to survive over the years and Time Life is now ready to release its second set of recordings culled from these shows. Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings will go on sale as a three disc set on Tuesday November 3rd/09, while individual discs from the set are being released as independent recordings at selected retailers in the United States.
The three discs each represent a different facet of Hank's character and his music. Disc one are his hits; "Cold, Cold Heart", "Move It On Over", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", and many more old favourites. Disc two is called "Southern Harmony", but it could just as easily been called Old Time Gospel, as its an entire side of old gospel tunes, with some having roots as old as 17th century England. The final disc is a collection of homilies and stories that Hank recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter. Either spoken word or recited verses, to our ears they might come across as being corny and hackneyed, but they were aimed at his unsophisticated and very religious audience of farmers and their wives who would have appreciated the story's simple axioms.
Each of the discs not only contains a collection of material taken from various broadcasts, but includes as an added bonus a complete Mother's Best broadcast built around the disc's theme. Regardless of whether or not he's doing a gospel show, telling tales, or singing some of his hits, each of Hank's shows start off with him and the boys doing the opening of "Lovesick Blues" from which he segues into introducing the show, its sponsor, and its host, Cousin Louis Buck. There's only enough time for a couple of tunes as well as fitting in the necessary mentions of Mother's Best Flour And Feed in the fifteen minutes allotted for each show, but Hank and the Drifting Cowboys deliver the goods each time. It might sound funny to us selling house wives flour for baking and feed for their livestock all at once, but the majority of the show's audiences are going to be a farmer's wife who not only has to feed her family, but think about the care of the livestock as well.
The real treat about these recordings, especially disc one, is that you get to here Hank completely relaxed. Some of the songs he's not performed outside of the recording studio before, and he and the guys are just winging it, with Hank calling out the solos for each member of the band as their turns come up. "Cold, Cold Heart" for instance was only released on record in February 1951, while the recording for the show it was featured in was probably made in January of that year. This means that Hank and the boys hadn't played it outside of the recording studio before this, and you can hear in his delivery just how fresh the tune still is for him.
The same relaxed atmosphere permeates all three discs, with the boys in The Drifting Cowboys, making interjections between the songs, and Hank and "Cousin" Louis trading banter and conversation throughout. Although I can't agree with their comments about the beauty of the gospel tunes, some of them with their talk of Christ's bleeding wounds while on the cross, "How Can You Refuse Him Now", made my blood run a bit cold. However it gives you a look into some of the darker recesses of William's brain where guilt and fear sit holding hands. "At The Cross", the ninth song on the disc, shows how deep the roots of Southern Christianity go, as its a reworking of a 17th century Passion hymn, "Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed" by English churchman Isaac Watts. The Puritan themes of blood and suffering run throughout most of these songs, and in Hank's performances we can see the roots of today's Christian conservative movement.
The final disc contains the work of Luke The Drifter, the pseudonym that Hank's record label, MGM, forced him to use to record collections of his spoken word pieces. While they're not quite as bad as the gospel tunes when it comes to their subject matter, to our ears they're not exactly heartening or inspiring. Ironically most of the advice Luke The Drifter dispensed Hank himself ignored. Like his gospel music, I think these pieces represented his yearning to be something other than who he was, and signified some of the guilt he felt about his lifestyle. Remember by this time he was living on pain medication and booze because of deterioration to his spinal column. At one point on the second disc you can hear him mention about having to sit down in order to sing, and there are times throughout all three discs when the pain you hear in his voice has nothing to do with the song he's singing.
The series of radio shows Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings was drawn from recordings made in the last year of Williams' life. They were a friendly voice to lonely housewives across the South on many a morning. When your closest neighbour is miles away, and your life doesn't extend much beyond the confines of your house and church, hearing Hank Williams' voice weekday mornings was one of the only things you had to remind you that a bigger world existed beyond your yard and kitchen.
Listening to Williams on these discs you get the feeling that he understands exactly what and who he represents to his listeners as he tries to entertain and inspire where he can. We may not be able to relate to some of the material he sings, but that in no way stops us from appreciating what he's doing. These recordings are close to the last stuff that Hank ever put down on tape, and they're a fitting testimony to what makes him such a beloved figure in the annals of music.