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At the height of his short yet astonishing career, country legend Hank Williams earned a few extra bucks in 1951 by performing an early-morning weekday radio show for Nashville station WSM. Sponsored by Mother's Best Flour, these 15-minute gems opened with a song by Hank, continued with a tune featuring his Drifting Cowboys band, and concluded with a daily spiritual dedicated to the sick and "shut-ins" among his mostly rural audience.
Thanks in large part to the success of "Cold, Cold Heart," Williams was also a highly desired live performer at the time. So when he was on the road and absent from WSM's Tulane Hotel studio in downtown Nashville, Hank recorded dozens of substitute "live" shows on 16-inch acetate discs. These priceless relics of musical Americana were rescued from the garbage by a station employee during the mid-60s. In 2008, following an eight-year legal battle for the rights to the music, Hank's daughter, Jett Williams, expedited the release of a small portion of this treasure trove.
And now Time-Life has released The Complete Mother's Best Recordings…Plus! This16-disk boxed set includes 71 shows Williams recorded nearly six decades ago. The set's 143 songs, recorded on a single microphone, more than double the amount of Williams tunes previously available. And the sound quality? Unbelievably intimate.
Jett Williams is no stranger to epic legal challenges. It was only in 1990, after years of litigation, the she was legally acknowledged to be Hank Williams's second child. She was born to Bobbie Webb Jett, a Nashville secretary, just five days after Hank's death at 29 on January 1, 1953.
Speaking by phone from her home in Nashville, Jett suggests that The Complete Mother's Best Recordings reveals a Hank Williams who's a lot happier, sharper and funnier than his biographies suggest. "There's very little real Hank out there," Jett says. "But here you've got eighteen hours of him. He tells you about goin' rabbit huntin', discusses the weather and current events, and explains why he wrote a certain song. You can smell the biscuits and taste the coffee. It's as if he's right there in the kitchen with you."
The radio versions of classic tunes such as "Cold, Cold Heart," "Mind Your Own Business," "Moanin' the Blues," and "Move It On Over" equal — if not surpass — their studio equivalents. But the real thrill lies in hearing Williams sing "Where the Old Red River Flows," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and other tunes he never got around to recording. And the way in which Williams switches from the bleak emotional autobiography of a tune like "Why Should We Try Anymore" to touting a "special offer" of twelve packets of Burpee's flower seeds (for two bits and a Mother's Best label) is a testament to both his soul and his professionalism.
Hank's wife, Audrey, is a frequent guest on shows early in the year and then not so much. The only thing more surprising than Audrey's lack of talent is Hank and the boys' enthusiastic response to her turns at the microphone. Jett Williams, a singer herself, is diplomatic. "My dad said it best: 'The only thing worse than having a wife who wants to sing is having one who can't.'"
At this point in his career, young Hank Williams was artistically bridging the gap between hillbilly music and what would come to be known as rock 'n' roll. The Mother's Best version of Hank's Drifting Cowboys band featured Don Helms on pedal-steel guitar, Jerry Rivers on fiddle and Sammy Pruett on guitar. These were musicians equally comfortable with Western swing, incendiary fiddle breakdowns, heavenly hymns and traditional tunes (including the best version of "On Top of Old Smokey" you'll ever hear).
The shows have a thrilling improvised spirit, as Hank changes keys and tunes on the spot. At one point, Hank asks the band to kick off his "I Saw the Light." They oblige, but Williams starts singing "Jesus Remembered Me" instead. You can't rewind acetate, unfortunately, so Hank stops and apologizes with a self-deprecating joke about writing many songs with the same melody before starting over.
The Complete Mother's Best Recordings…Plus! also includes a DVD in which Jett Williams interviews Don Helms, singer Big Bill Lister, and WSM engineer Glenn Snoddy. The real rarity, however, is "Stars in Her Eyes," a long-lost, 14-minute public-service announcement Williams sings and recites about the perils of venereal disease. Like everything else in this amazing box tricked out to look like a vintage radio, it offers a rare glimpse into the rich Southern culture Hank Williams epitomized.