(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
If I could send any recorded music collection into distant outer space to forever preserve and represent the true nature of American popular music, I think I would choose this extensive Hank Williams set of his little 15-minute radio shows from the 1950s. They contain a breathtaking display of the width and breadth of American music and culture from the first half of the 20th century and even earlier. The songs Hank sang transcend country.
The fact that these recordings barely survived a trip to the garbage bin and were lost for years makes their existence even more remarkable. They open a candid window on Southern culture in the 1950s, on its music, religion, humor and social attitudes.
Jet Williams, Hank Williams’ daughter and the person who led an eight-year legal battle to secure release of these recordings, says, “With this box set, I truly got to know my father. It’s a total experience. Hearing these is like having him in the same room with you. This body of work is so special that it convinced the Pulitzer Prize board to give my father a special Pulitzer.”
Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus! comes in a replica of a cathedral-style table radio that actually plays snippets of the shows. The accompanying book and tour map show more attention to careful detail than most similar and elaborate boxed set projects. And the music is genuine and sounds as if it were recorded yesterday.
This is the long-awaited complete set of Hank Williams’ Mother’s Best radio transcriptions for Nashville station WSM in 1951. And this elaborate box from Time Life Records was well worth the wait. It’s a genuine time machine, for travel to another day and another time.
Containing 143 songs, 72 shows of the 15-minute radio program were saved from 1951 and are presented here, along with a DVD of memories and many photos and extensive liner notes. This release more than doubles the number of songs now available from Williams.
In 1951, Hank Williams was in the full flower of his short career and was in great demand for live shows on the road. He and his Drifting Cowboys band traveled every week throughout the U.S. and Canada in passenger cars on two-lane roads and usually returned to Nashville for Hank’s contractual Saturday night appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Hank was also contracted to do a live early morning radio show for Nashville’s WSM-AM. His show was sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour, so that’s what it was called.
When he had to be on the road, Hank would record his show on 16-inch acetate discs at the WSM studio in the Castle studios in the Tulane Hotel in downtown Nashville, across the street from WSM. The acetates would be played as if Hank actually were in the WSM studio broadcasting live. The map included with this boxed set actually shows where he was physically playing on the day a particular show was broadcast on WSM. And, yeah, they were called “shows” then. The fancy word “concert” didn’t come along for many years for pop and rock and country acts. Concerts were classical music events then.
The most striking aspect of these recordings is the added dimension they contribute to an understanding of Hank Williams, the person as well as the star. He did few interviews, very little TV and no casual public appearances. Hearing him talk off the cuff, in between songs here, humanizes him as nothing else could have done. These shows truly add another dimension to Hank Williams.
So, what does it all sound like? Well, the fidelity of the sound is incredible. Imagine that you’re in a farmhouse kitchen on an early morning in 1951 and you’re just sitting down to some aromatic biscuits, dripping with fresh-churned butter and a cup of throat-scalding coffee, and you turn on the big table radio and the warm sound of clear-channel signal WSM fills the room.
Announcer Louie Buck says, “Mother’s Best Flour brings you Hank Williams!” And it sounds as if he’s in the room with you. Some songs are familiar, some are not. Songs such as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Cool Water” and “Cherokee Boogie.” He adds a desperate sense of angst to “Up on Old Smoky.” And there was always a gospel song on every show, such as “That Beautiful Home,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “I’ll Have a New Life.” There are occasional songs you’ll want to skip after the first time you hear them. Those are the songs that Hank’s wife Audrey insisted on singing. She had convinced herself she was a gifted singer.
The 15th CD in the set contains some rare recordings. Sometime in 1952 (the exact date is uncertain), when he had less than a year to live, Hank auditioned for a radio show sponsored by Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Owen Bradley, then the orchestra leader for WSM, backed Hank on two songs here. Hank had already dissolved his Drifting Cowboys, so he was accompanied by the Bradley Quintet on “Why Don’t You Love Me.” Hank introduces announcer Louie Buck, who introduces Aunt Jemima, who reads a commercial for the pancake mix. Bradley’s group then played “San Antonio Rose” and the Beasley Sisters delivered “Honey, Be My Honey Bee.” Hank wrapped it up with “Cold, Cold Heart,” again backed by Bradley’s group. He introduces it as the song that “has the top spot in my heart.”
Also here is the memorable PSA that Hank recorded about the dangers of venereal disease. “Stars in Her Eyes” is a 14-minute soap opera that Hank sings and recites, interspersed with running remarks from a woman who portrays an unfaithful wife who contracts syphilis.
The DVD that finishes the boxed set contains Jett’s telling of the history of this project and interviews she conducted with Drifting Cowboys Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, along with WSM engineer Glenn Snoddy. At times, the interviews become emotional.