For the longest time I could never understand how anybody could like country music. The problem was that it took me nearly forever to realize there was a huge difference between the music that's performed by people like Shania Twain, and country music. Growing up in urban centres the only type of country music I heard for the longest time was the former, as someone must have decided that city audiences were too sophisticated to want to hear any of the old time, or more traditionally styled, examples of the genre.
Not having any incentive to search out country music it took a series of accidents for me to stumble across the good stuff; walking into a record store and hearing my first Graham Parsons duet with Emmylou Harris, listening to my brother's Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson albums, and learning about Hank Williams by hearing a guy named Sneezy Waters singing his music. Waters had been cast in the role of Hank in the original production of the play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, when it played the bars and theatres in and around Ontario Canada back in the late 1970's. Hank Williams died in the back of his Caddilac on the way to a New Year's Day performance in 1953 from a combination of booze and drugs, and the premise of the play was that he made it to that show.
During the course of the play Hank became progressively drunker and more morose, until by the end he was barely standing. What really made the play work though was Sneezy Waters' ability to reproduce Hank's songs down to that distinctive catch in his throat when the emotions of what he was singing about began to overwhelm him. Having heard another performer singing Hank's music made me want to hear the original article, and in spite of Sneezy Water's remarkable performance, nothing he did had prepared me for the raw emotional intensity of Hank Williams.
Hank Williams wasn't around very long to enjoy the spotlight, as he didn't come to the public's attention in a big way until 1949 and was dead four years later, so there has never been a huge library of his recordings available for fans to listen too. However, back in 1950-51 he recorded a series of radio shows that were sponsored by Mother's Best Flour, and because of his extensive touring schedule he was forced to pre-record the shows on acetate discs. It's these recordings that Time Life have used as the source for their new release Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings. The three CDs come handsomely packaged in a tall hard cover package that opens like a book. On the inside front cover are the first two CDs, followed by thirty-eight pages of photographs and text giving the history of the recordings and Williams' biography, with the third disc on the inside of the back cover.
The attention paid to detail in the packaging, how often are CD booklets made large enough that you can read the text without the aid of a magnifying glass and you can see details like a subject's eyes in the photographs, is a reflection of the quality of the whole package. Previous experiences I've had with collections of "Unreleased Materials" have led me to believe there was a really good reason for the material not to have been released. Either the sound quality is so bad that there's no point in listening to the songs, or the songs themselves are an embarrassment that nobody would have dared release while the performer, or any of their next of kin for that matter, was still alive.
That's not the case here as not only is the quality of the sound is almost universally better than any studio recordings of Hank Williams music made from the same time, they were made during the period in his life when he was able to keep the same band together for the entire year. So even if Williams decided to drop a surprise on them, say like playing "On Top Of Old Smokey" like "my gran'ma used to sing it", he'd only have to give them a chord and they'd follow his lead. As these were recorded for radio shows, quite a number of the tracks also include Hank's introductions to the songs, which are almost as much fun to listen to as the songs themselves.
He and the announcer for the show, Cousin Louis Buck, would introduce the songs in the form of having a conversation that was meant to include their early morning audiences. The show was broadcast in the Mid-West for fifteen minutes, Monday to Friday, at 7:15 am which meant that those listening to it were primarily farmers and their families either working in the barn or sitting down for their second breakfast. This could explain why a great many of the songs Williams performed were older songs or gospel numbers as they would be the material his listeners would be most familiar with.
He also used it as an opportunity to try out some of his newer material that he and the band hadn't even recorded yet. Disc two opens with him introducing a song that 'has never been performed on-air before', "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)". Yet while there are other familiar songs included in the collection, the majority of them are ones that I've never heard him sing before. To be honest there are a great many of them that I've never even heard of before; "The Prodigal Son", "From Jerusalem To Jericho", and "Lonely Tombs". Some of these gospel tunes, like the last one, originated nearly a hundred years earlier, but Williams makes them sound as fresh as if they'd just been penned the day he recorded them.
What really comes clear in these recordings is just how good a singer Williams was. Somehow his voice seems to stand out more on these old radio shows then it did on his studio albums and we hear nuances and shadings that I swear I'd not heard in his voice before. Williams always wore his heart on his sleeve in his recordings, and the songs in this collection are no different from any of his other material that way. In fact due to their clarity, there's even more emotional power to these performances than others, and you can't help but realize how much pain he lived with on a constant basis.
Unlike the mawkish sentiment that passes for emotion in today's popular and country music, Hank Williams' songs sounded like they were torn from his heart. You know when listening to him that the catch in his voice isn't artifice but the real thing and he can make you feel so lonesome that you want to cry. The material gathered together for Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings is not only a wonderful opportunity to hear him sing songs that you've never heard him sing before, but reinforces the fact that country music has yet to produce anyone who comes close to matching him for the emotional integrity of his songs and his performance. The anti-Hank may reign in Nashville and Las Vegas, but true believers can find solace in this collection, as it reminds us what country music really sounds like
(Originally posted November 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.