In one of his most unguarded moments on record, Hank Williams unexpectedly broke into a new, unrehearsed song while visiting Jackson, Mississippi radio station WSLI on the morning of February 21, 1950. The new “hillbilly music” star had just finished singing “Lost Highway” and “I’m A Long Gone Daddy” backed by a local band that disc jockey Farmer Jim had assembled for Hank’s live radio performance. Next, on the spur of the moment, Hank felt like singing a new song and launched into “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” He had written and recorded the song a few weeks earlier, but hadn’t planned on performing the tune publicly until it was released by MGM Records the following month or so.
“Boys, I don’t know much about this myself,” Hank warned the band over the airwaves. “I don’t know where I’m gonna stop myself. So, if I stop, y’all stop, too.” No one knew the song except Hank, and even he wasn’t sure he could remember it all. It could have backfired terribly; instead it turned out pretty well. One way or the other, Hank didn’t care.
Hank’s off-the-cuff performance that day offers a glimpse of what makes him the most powerfully iconic figure in country music, and it sheds some light on why we may never see a singer of his caliber again.
“Everyone who comes to Nashville wants to be Hank,” notes Hank Williams biographer Colin Escott of the late singer’s impact today. “They want to write ’em and sing ’em and achieve that level of stardom. On another level, Hank has that outlaw image. He did it the way he felt like doing it and damn the torpedoes. His ’By God–I don’t care’ attitude is something everyone aspires to and pays lips service to these days, but so few actually have the courage of their convictions to act upon it.”
The fact that the Hillbilly Shakespeare never reached his 30th birthday accounts for part of his looming myth. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that we continue to be so captivated by his songs and recordings nearly a half century after his death. Hank’s radio performance of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” on The Farmer Jim Show is just one of 53 previously unissued recordings that appear on The Complete Hank Williams. The timely release of the 10 CD box set coincides with today’s 75th anniversary of Hank’s birth.
Released by Mercury Records and produced by Colin Escott, Kira Florita and the Country Music Foundation, the smartly-packaged Complete Hank Williams is the Holy Grail of country music. It features:
225 recordings: All of the MGM and Sterling Records session recordings and 132 non-session and radio/television recordings compiled with state-of-the-art restoration. Highlights include many previously unissued demos of just Hank and his guitar, Shreveport radio performances, his Luke The Drifter narrations, Hank’s debut performance of “Lovesick Blues” on the Grand Ole Opry, songs from his Health & Happiness Show, the earliest known recordings of Hank from 1939-40, a duet of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” with 19-year-old Anita Carter and Hank’s nearly three-minute spoken apology for a missed performance.
Over 120 photos: Mostly previously unpublished or rare, from Hank Williams Jr.’s personal family collection, Marty Stuart’s collection (which he acquired from Hank’s late sister, Irene) and the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Detailed discographical information provided by Hank aficionado Bob Pinson; well-grounded, comprehensive notes on the music by Colin Escott; and an appreciative essay by music journalist Daniel Cooper.
Interesting artifacts, including session worksheets, letters, tour posters and LP covers. The set includes Hank’s handwritten lyrics for “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Saw The Light” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” There is also the telegram Hank’s mother sent to his sister on January 1, 1953: “COME AT ONCE HANK IS DEAD.”
An 11-page full-color foldout time line with all the significant dates and milestones of Hank’s life.
After contributing his music expertise to countless important reissues, Escott maintains The Complete Hank Williams is the crown jewel of all the projects he has ever worked on. “Everything I felt when I first heard Hank–everything I love about Hank–was reinforced again,” Escott says.
Mercury, the CMF and Escott have had in mind to assemble a complete Hank Williams CD package for years. They’re glad the mammoth collection is arriving at a time when the market isn’t as saturated with new box sets as it was a couple of years ago. Also, they held out until they could get a good number of unissued performances included on the set.
“I know there is a perception out there that record companies don’t give a toss about consumers,” Escott says, “but that isn’t always true, and it is especially not true in this case. We didn’t want people who bought Hank’s records down through the years to have to buy a ($170 list price) box set just to get five or six songs they haven’t heard before. We began getting leads on a number of unissued performances, and over the last two or three years we’ve followed up these leads and gathered all the unissued material. The sum total of everything Mercury Records owned was on a series of eight double-LPs they released back in the ’80s; everything we’ve acquired since then had to be found and bought.”
Quotations from Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Minnie Pearl, Ray Price and others who have been moved by Hank’s music are included in the box set’s 100-plus page booklet. A citation from Tillman Franks–a Shreveport music executive–helps bring to light Hank’s mindset and what perhaps triggered Hank’s risky radio performance on The Farmer Jim Show on the morning of February 21, 1950. “I feel it so much I ain’t worried about whether they like it or not,” Hank once told Tillman Franks about losing himself in a song. “If they like me, well and good. If they don’t, I can’t help it.”
In contrast, contemporary stars worry too much about who they please. Most of them pay lip service to Hank’s renegade spirit and do little else. “Can you imagine most of today’s country stars taking the kind of chance Hank took on radio that early morning in Jackson, Mississippi?” Escott rhetorically asks. “These are people with marketing degrees. They’re not going to take chances like that.”
Regardless if he would have made such a bold move in this day and age of high-stake commercialism, Hank epitomizes the way it was done and the way a lot of people still wish it could be done.