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Hank Williams
The Unreleased Recordings

Review By Steven Stone

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  Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be any "new" Hank Williams recordings, along comes this big beautiful box featuring 54 previously unreleased tracks. According to his daughter Jett Williams, "We have 143 previously unreleased songs, and 43 of those are songs he never recorded elsewhere." This first infusion of new material increases the total number of available tracks by fifty percent.

How did this treasure trove remain buried for so long? Grab your coffee, this may take awhile… Williams first recorded these 143 tracks for a radio show called "Mother's Best" that aired every morning at 7:15. As you can well imagine making it into the studio in the early morning to play live was difficult for a man like Hank, so he recorded his contributions in advance. Transcribed onto acetate disks, the morning DJ could have Hank "live" whenever he needed him.

After these 72 shows were aired the disks were archived and during a purge for space they wound up in WSM's dumpster. Les Leverett, Grand ‘Ol Opry's photographer, saved them from the trash, and years later gave them to the Hank Williams estate. Unfortunately a copy of these shows got into the hands of a less than scrupulous producer who overdubbed additional instruments and then released them. The estate filed injunctions and the court case went on for eight years. Finally in January 2006 the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in Nashville decreed that the only legal owner of the shows was the estate of Hank Williams. Estate executors Jett and Hank Williams Jr. enlisted Time Life to release the unadulterated versions of these historic recordings.

Unlike most of his studio recordings, which included phalanxes of studio musicians and background singers, all the Mother's Best recordings were made with Hank William's regular touring band. Band members during the Mother's Best sessions included Don Helms on pedal steel, Sammy Pruett on guitar, Jerry Rivers on fiddle, Howard Watts on bass, and Jerry Rivers on fiddle.

This box features a cornucopia of material, including Hank Williams' staples such as "Hey Good Lookin'," Cold, Cold Heart," "Mind Your Own Business," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." But for hardcore fans the commercially unreleased Williams' original "The California Zephyr" and his covers of country and pop hits, hymns, and gospel numbers will hold the most appeal. Renditions of old standards such as The Sons of the Pioneer's "Cool Water" and the Satchmo' Armstrong staple "The Saints Go Marching In" demonstrate Hank Williams' ability to make any song uniquely his own.

Among fifty-four songs there are bound to be some clinkers. Depending on your taste, you might find some of the more maudlin selections such as "Pictures of Life's Other Side," motivating you to hit the skip button on your CD player. Several of the religious numbers come very close to William's "Luke the Drifter" recordings in terms of sheer tent meeting over-the-top pious religiosity.

Transcribed from the original acetates by Alan Stoker at the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum and then restored and mastered by Joe Palmaccio at The Place... For Mastering, these recordings sound surprisingly good. Some selections such as "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" suffer from sonic flaws that even the most modern mastering techniques couldn't completely ameliorate. But on most of the cuts you can hear all the musical parts clearly and never have I heard Hank Williams' voice sound more vibrant or real.

Colin Escott, author of Good Rockin' Tonight: The Story of Sun Records, contributed the scholarly yet engaging liner notes. Combined with wonderful old photographs of Hank, his band, and sheet music from his era, the forty-page attached book adds substantially to the intellectual and emotional value of this three-CD package. If I have some gift certificates after the holidays I know what I'll spend them on...

 

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