A year after the arrival of the Time-Life first box set of previously unreleased Hank Williams performances comes a second set. Like the first set, all the material comes from a series of pre-recorded performances Hank did for sponsor Mother’s Best in 1951, which were then broadcast ‘as live’. This edition, however, is different from its predecessor in several ways.
What isn’t different are the production values, which are outstanding. The remastered sound is amazing. The liner notes by Colin Escott are remarkably detailed, providing information about every song, and trying to untangle some of the more dubious copyright attributions. The booklet is ilustrated with some archive photographs of Hank and others associated with him. I particularly like a picture taken for Mother’s Best which has Hank and the Drifting Cowboys wielding a range of sacks of the company’s produce (flour and animal feed)alongside their instruments. There are also some reproductions of printed memorabilia, sheet music etc.
The first set included three CDs worth of material, but the contents were fairly cohesive, with the song selection concentrating on songs Hank never recorded commercially, including many covers of contemporary hits by other artists and some of the hymns and traditional songs he would have grown up listening to, interspersed with some of Hank’s own songs. It made for a great record to listen to on its own terms. This one is perhaps of more historical interest, and gives each of its three discs a specific and distinct identity.
The first disc, sub-titled ‘The Hits… Like Never Before’, has excellent live versions of a dozen of Hank’s big hits. The fact that several of these songs had been written and first recorded within a year or so of these performances reminds us just what an astonishing talent he was. All-time classics like ‘Cold Cold Heart’, ‘Lonesome Whistle’ (possibly better known as ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’, and ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’ were all brand new songs in 1951, and others were not much older. The songs chosen here range from the intensely personal songs apparently inspired by his troubled relationship with wife Audrey like the aforementioned ‘Cold Cold Heart’ to more light hearted numbers on the same theme like ‘Move It On Over’ and ‘I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living’ and less personal material like ‘Mansion On The Hill’. Most of the songs on this disc are Hank’s own compositions, with the exception of Leon Payne’s lovely ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’. The tracks in this part of the box set are outstanding, and I will be returning to this disc repeatedly over the next few months.
Every Mother’s Best show closed with a sincerely delivered religious number, and Disc Two, entitled ‘Southern Harmony’, which takes its name from a 19th century hymnal, displays a selection of these. Most of these were hymns or Southern gospel songs, although one or two are Hank originals. The famously dissonant Audrey was present for one session, and duets with Hank on ‘Something Got A Hold Of Me’. It actually isn’t that bad, even though Audrey’s voice is higher than Hank’s in the mix, but on a box of this kind, it feels right that their work together should be acknowledged. Nevertheless, I’m relieved it was restricted to one song. She wasn’t around for the version included here of ‘Dear Brother’, which they had recorded togther in 1949, and the result is better for it. These songs were clearly very important to Hank, but they don’t stand out as much as the best of his secular material. I like ‘I Am Bound For The Promised Land’ the best of the hymns here, and ‘Jesus Died For Me is my favorite of Hank’s gospel songs. I also like the slow emotional story song of Judas and his ‘Thirty Pieces Of Silver’, which is set to the tune of teh ld folk song ‘On Top Of Old Smoky’, Hank’s version of which appeared on the first box set.
Disc Three is subtitled ‘Luke The Drifter’, and looks at Hank in his ‘Luke The Drifter’ persona, in which he delivered sentimental, religious and sometimes comic narrations and talking blues. Only a handful of the tracks here are actually Luke songs, of which my favorite is the wryly optimistic take on life’s disasters in ‘Everything’s Okay’. Hank covers T Texas Tyler’s hit narration ‘Deck Of Cards’, which is along much the same lines, but notwithstanding the title, this disc also includes a handful of more conventional songs which would not have fitted into either of the other two, but none of these is particularly memorable. A very playful version by the Drifting Cowboys of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ does stand out.
Each of the three discs also features one entire ‘Mother’s Best’ show, which really give a picture of what they were like. They were all fairly short, and followed the same formula. Every single show opened with ‘Lovesick Blues’, which during his lifetime was Hank’s monster hit, which everyone wanted to hear at every show. Then there was another secular song, an instrumental interlude or two from the Drifting Cowboys (all well-known tunes), and the spiritual number. The songs on these particular shows include ”Nobody’s Lonesome For Me’, ‘My Sweet Love Ain’t Around’, ‘I Dreamed About Mom Last Night’, and Hank’s best gospel song, ‘I I Saw The Light’. In between the songs there is some agreeable banter and (naturally) unashamed advertising of Mother’s Best products. The set actually ends with Hank singing the Mother’s Best theme tune and another commercial.
Although this set has been given the title ‘Revealed’, in some respects I feel that first volume was more revelatory because of the range of material covered. In addition, beacuse the shows were pre-recorded for subsequent broadcast, they don’t really give us a glimpse into Hank off duty. That said, the music is great, and this is a must-have for anyone really interested in the history of country music.