Editor's note: CMT/CMT.com editorial director Chet Flippo is on vacation this week. In his absence, we're revisiting a Nashville Skyline column first published in October 2008.
Songs are the measure of a man. And with the new Hank Williams CD set you can hear the man in the songs.
Williams was country's first superstar and deservedly so. His music lives on because it was what made him a superstar. It was not publicity's glare or intensive hype or celebrity friends or any other kind of flash that made you know who he was. He wrote and sang solid music that stopped you dead in your tracks when you heard it.
Hank Williams understood more than he knew. You can hear it in his songwriting and also in his song selection. He said things in his own songs that he could never say in real life. And he seemed to seek out larger truths in selecting compositions by other writers. As far as I can tell from researching and writing a biography of Williams, picking others' songs went against his grain because his ego called for him to record only his own songs insofar as far as he could. But, especially early on in his career he built up a repertoire of many and varied works.
You can hear many of those in the boxed set, Hank: Unreleased Recordings, which I think is one of the most important recorded music projects in recent years. Why? Well, it can introduce a new generation to the architect of modern country music that Hank Williams was. It can display much of Hank's back-story, the music that got him to the point that he became country's first true superstar and legend-to-be. All by the time that he flamed out at age 29. And it can, through this glimpse of Hank, give us an accurate glimpse of what popular American country music really was in the 1940s and 1950s.
These recordings were made for an early-morning show on Nashville radio station WSM mainly in 1951. The sponsor was Mother's Best Flour. The shows were usually recorded because Williams was on the road throughout the week. That these shows were recorded on fragile acetate disks for later broadcast is the only reason they have been preserved at all. The acetates were later discarded by the radio station, which was pretty much standard practice in those days. Fortunately, someone rescued them from the trash bin and held onto them for years and they now can be heard by all of us.
Of the songs included in those radio shows, we will never fully know the extent to which Williams' alter ego, Fred Rose, figured in his selection process. Rose was Williams' song collaborator, de facto record producer, and father figure. He was a successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter long before he moved to Nashville and launched Acuff-Rose Music in 1942. It was country music's first song publishing house. It later took on other roles for its artists and songwriters. In Hank's case, Acuff-Rose filled the roles of publisher, manager, producer, co-writer, booking agent and accountant.
Unfortunately for history, Fred Rose left no journals or other written accounts of his work with Williams. Rose was much more sophisticated musically than was Williams, who also admittedly bought songs from writers he ran across -- standard practice in those days. But we can tell that Williams' song selection for his radio shows was much broader than his choices for his recordings.
Williams' listening habits were pretty wide for a country boy born in 1923 into poverty in Alabama. The songs he picked for his radio shows ranged far beyond what you might imagine he listened to. As a child in rural Alabama, his musical sources were limited to AM radio, old Southern folk songs sung locally, the rare phonograph recording, live church music, a street singer like Tee-Tot who taught him much and religious tent revivals. Songs that stayed with him ranged from the old folk standard "On Top of Old Smoky" to the gospel song "I'll Fly Away" to a weeper such as "The Blind Child's Lament" and even "When the Saints Go Marching In."
The 54 songs included here range widely across the spectrum, from traditional Southern gospel to Hank originals, from Appalachian ballads to a Western standard, from honky-tonk to cob-webby ancient tunes. They all share Hank Williams' formula for musical success: total emotional commitment to the song. If he couldn't identify with the song himself, Hank Williams could never sell it to anyone else and he well knew that.
I have enjoyed discussing these recordings with Hank's daughter Jett, who is very eloquent as a spokesperson for her father's legacy. Jett has spent much of her adult life in court, first establishing her identity as Hank Williams' daughter and then in recovering these lost recordings and making them available for the public to hear. She never got to meet her father, which makes these recordings especially poignant to her. "I finally heard my father laugh," she said. "I heard him as he was, as a man." On his radio shows, he discussed the songs and told corny jokes and displayed his human side.
For the greater listening audience, all of this means that you can hear one of America's most significant music figures at the height of his powers, playing and singing the music that he really liked and treasured personally. Not the music that he felt he should record professionally for Hank Williams, the big star. This is the music that Hank Williams, born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive West, Ala., wanted to play and sing when he was just out there with his people.