Archive for November, 2008

Washington Square News the newspaper of New York University has nothing but posiitve things to say about Hank Williams and the new box set based on the Mother’s Best Flour radio shows from 1951.

The reviewer, Mike Miller, unfortunately  spends his first two paragraphs trashing Hank Jr. which is his right but it just didn’t fit into this review. However Miller is well within the bounds of fair comment when he compares the power of these Hank Williams’ performances to modern country which he says: “strips away all sincerity, packaging it in an embarrassing ensemble consisting of cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat. Listening to Hank Williams today is bittersweet.”

He goes on to say, “His voice has never sounded clearer, his guitar never more cutting and he has never come across so tragically human.”

Finally, before taking a few more shots at modern country, he says, “Williams and his band the Drifting Cowboys made undeniably beautiful music: His voice sounds the way a broken heart feels; listening to Don Helms’ steel guitar is like watching your father cry.”

This a fairly short review with a few reader comments on the end about the writer’s strong opinions of Hank Jr. and modern country.  It’s here.

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A blogger known as Citizen K has written the best review of “Hank Williams The Unreleased Recordings” that I have read yet.

I’m including in this opinion the articles written in major national and international publications which I posted links to in an earlier post.

Citizen K opens his review with a reference to my favorite movie of all time, and a picture which indirectly pays a deep and lasting tribute to the spirit of Hank Williams. Of course we’re talking about “The Last Picture Show” a film by Peter Bogdanovich.  The movie features the early 50’s country music throughout the sound track coming out of car radios, juke boxes, and and record players and radios in living rooms, restaurants and bars throughout a small Texas town.

Citizen K understands Hank better than most writers on the subject, and in this quotation, says what a lot of fans have thought and felt, but perhaps, like me, were never  able to express.

Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate. In Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, he fearlessly explores this core, leading us on the harrowing journey that ultimately claimed his life.

Wow! I think I started this blog just to say that and now its been done. I’ll say no more. Here’s the link.

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(Please scroll down to Part 1 for Introduction, and longer quotes from ‘Tower of Song’ and Cohen’s comment on Hank)

 As mentioned earlier famed singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen paid tribute to Hank Williams in his 1988 song called ‘Tower of Song’. Then later in 1994, Cohen expanded on his reference to Hank, to talk what he was trying to say in the song and what he saw as Hank Williams’ place in history as well as his own.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the quotation is when he says he was not employing “inverse modesty” when he said Hank was “a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.” We would normally call that “false modesty”. He means, of course, he was sincere and was not trying to reflect attention back to himself from people who would say “wink wink, nudge nudge” we know you’re trying to get us to think you are really just kidding and know you are far more important than Hank Williams.

Earlier in the quote, Cohen had placed himself and by implication Hank Williams as well, in the long tradition of songwriters, and lyric poets  such as Homer, Dante, and Wordsworth. In that respect he calls himself a very minor writer compared to Hank Williams.

He doesn’t force people to compare Hank or for that matter himself to the greats of literature. He says, ” I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song,” but notes that the songs must be understood in, “his own tradition”.  As for his own contribution, he says he understands, “I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.” And so it goes back to, “a hundred floors above me.”

I think this is one of the most profoundly deep, and moving tributes to Hank Williams I’ve ever read. It’s complex and sincere. It recognizes that poets from the ancients, to Country Music, to the folk/rock singer songwriters of the 60’s are part of the same tradition.

Now, I know there have been many famous singer songwriters who have talked glowingly about the work of Hank Williams and his  standing in the world of songwriting.  But what Cohen has done is to lift that praise to a new level bringing Hank into a new place as a part of the legitimate literary world.  I’ve always thought the Leonard Cohen song and quotation were special because of his standing as both a songwriter, musician and in the literary world of poetry, novels, and serious literary discussion.

I hope you haven’t been too bored!

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 Leonard Cohen is one of the most celebrated singer songwriters in popular music.

His music career began in the sixties and along with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and many others he led the wave which brought the songwriter especially the songwriter with a message to the forefront of popular music. The singer songwriter revolution, which  as we all know had a long tradition in country and blues, brought to pop a renewed empahsis on language and poetic techniques.

Before his first album, Leonard Cohen had a successful career as a legitimate academic style poet and novelist. Before the albums, and songs, and music there were award winning books of poetry and the friendship, mentorship, and acceptance by the University community and other poets. 

Since the sixties, Cohen has become a legendary figure in pop music, playing around the world with sell out shows before adoring fans, especially women, with songs such as ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘MaryAnne’, ‘That’s no way to say Goodbye’,and  ‘Suzanne’,

He has been the subject of many cover versions of his songs including the acclaimed ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Jennifer Warnes in 1988.

As all Hank Williams fans know, Leonard Cohen famously paid tribute to  Hank in a song called ‘Tower of Song’ released in  1988    on the Album ‘I’m Your Man’.

Here are the first three verses of that song.

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

There are five more verses. 

Its significant to note that in this song about songwriters and singers, Cohen only mentions one actual real person who is a modern singer/songwriter and that person is Hank Williams.

During a visit to the UK, Cohen was asked about the ‘Tower of Song’ and Hank Williams.

I will take some timelooking at this response which I quote here in full.

“If you’re going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, then you’ve really got to think about who you’re talking about. You’re not just talking about Randy Newman, who’s fine, or Bob Dylan, who’s sublime, you’re talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you’re talking about the embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don’t think it’s particularly modest or virtuous to think of oneself as a minor poet. I really do feel the enormous luck I’ve had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn’t want to write.”

“But I don’t fool myself, I know the game I’m in. When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘A hundred floors above me in the tower of song’, it’s not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheatin’ Heart, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer. I’ve taken a certain territory, and I’ve tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I’m too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.”

I want to talk about the curious phrase “inverse modesty” and other aspects of Cohen’s tribute to Hank which I will save until Part 2.

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I’m not much of an expert on Discography, and this blog is more of a personal feelings and comment Journal than a news or research effort.

I remember my first Hank Williams record was called ‘Moaning the Blues’ purchased in the 1950’s. It was E3330. It had some rarities taken I assume from unreleased cuts, demos or radio recordings. For example it has, yes I still have it in front of me right now, it has ‘Low Down Blues’, ‘Someday You’ll Call Mt Name’, ‘Alone and Forsaken’, and ‘My Sweet Love Ain’t Around’.

Some hits from the Williams’ catologue included, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Honky Tonk Blues’, and ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’. A great collection.

I also have an early ‘Luke the Drifter’ album. I also have the very early, at least for me, Metro bargain album called called ‘Hank Williams’. It has some great perfromances picked off radio or demos such as ‘Tennessee Border’, ‘Beyond the Sunset’, I’ll be a Bachelor Till I Die’, ‘Rockin Chair Money’, and a beautiful vocal called ‘I’m Free At Last’. 

Another album I bought in the early days is ‘Hank Williams In the Beginning’ which has liner notes by Wesley Rose and contains the early Sterling recordings.

In later years, I have acquired some yellow label MGM 78’s, but these were my early Hank albums.

This is by way of introduction to a new Discography Website. I’m sure there are hundreds of these that I’m not aware of. But Mike Taylor of the UK sent me a note about a new site he has established. He’s looking for suggestions and any comments you might have. I just can’t get over the amount of tedious work, a labor of love I’m sure, but the sheer amount of research that would go in to a site like this. Great effort Mike.

Here’s his URL:


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A big tip of the hat to Don Holland of Florida for sending me the location of the new Hank Williams set by Reader’s Digest.

I was searching for this but couldn’t find it. Anyway as I said earlier, this Reader’s Digest version of the Mother’s Best Shows is not single songs but complete shows. So it’s on these programs that listeners will experience the feel of Hank Williamsd live, his on air personality, his humour, his sincerity, and just the all around picture of the man Jett Williams has been talking about in the interviews.

Here’s the link from Don.

I was hoping Reader’s Digest would offer this as a TV special offer. Oh well.

The Reader’s Digest version is 4 CDs, 3 hours and 24 minutes.

The complete title is:

The Legendary Hank Williams: Rare and on the Radio

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‘I Dreamed That The Great Judgement Morning’ is a beautiful treasure of Hank Williams’ ability as an accomplished professional vocalist.

The notes to The Unreleased Recordings three CD set say it is the longest recording of Hank Williams there is. It clocks in at about five minutes. The exact figure is 5:25.

The outstanding thing about this track is the control Hank exhibits from beginning to end. The old hymn is a straight verse piled on verse. There is a chorus but no sense of a break or bridge to give a feeling of variety. There is no musical break by the Drifting Cowboys during the entire performance. I can’t think of too many examples of Hank showing such power over a listener’s attention.

Hank’s singing style is not only controlled, but he sings in a softer gentler range, a bit lower than usual and with a openness and depth. The recording at WSM is deeper and fuller than the MGM recordings at Castle Studio. I wish somebody could explain this.  I have read somewhere that Eddy Arnold, for example, recorded at Castle in those days and certainly achieved a full rich tone.

But the real power of this recording is how it highlights the whole Hank Williams package minus the humor rock and roll of course! There is absolute commitment to the song, total concentration and control, and unbelievable sincerity. 

It doesn’t matter if you are a fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal, Catholic, agnostic, or atheist, in this performance, Hank has you in the palm of his hand, suspending critical judgement and disbelief, for five minutes and twenty five seconds you won’t forget.

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As promised, here are some of the links to reviews of Hank Williams The Unreleased Recordings. Most of these are excellent but I won’t pick favorites.

The New York Times packaged the record review with a story of the new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I think this was a major feature in a very influential newspaper.

Here is the review in the Bible of rock criticism, Rolling Stone Magazine.

Apparently Newsweek Magazine was right on top of the album from the start even though it released by Time Life.

I forgot to mention that Time/Life itself, I think,  has set up a blog on Google devoted to news and information about The Unreleased Recordings. It is very informative and  low key on sales promotion. I like it.

The Associated Press did a story on the new Hank Williams recordings. It appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the world. Individual papers make changes in the copy, but this appears to be a fairly complete version of the AP story.

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As critics and reviewers from across the Country and around the world have been saying, this is a wonderful collection of Hank Williams music taken from a 1951 WSM morning radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour.

For old timers out there, we’ve got to stay alive a few more years. This box set contains 3 CDs and 54 performances. The treasure trove from Mother’s Best will result in a similar set next year and I think a third 3 CD compilation in 2010.

As readers will know and I won’t go into detail, we had to wait until 2008 because the acetate disks sat at WSM for decades apparently thought to be worthless until they were tossed in the trash and then rescued by an employee. We’ve waited years more because of legal wrangles over ownership of the disks and music between The radio station, the record company and the Williams estate represented by Jett Williams and Hank Williams Jr.

Fortunately the estate won and Jett Williams has demanded and received a classy full booklet box set treatment with detailed notes onj the collection and the individual recordings.

Off the top, it seems to me the acetate recording equipment and studio acoustics at WSM appear to be better that they were at the Castle Studios where his MGM records were made. The sound quality on most of these recordings is superb, the best ever.

I agree with most of the reviewers that there are several clear highlights, but there are also many hidden treasures here too. At some point I hop to do a song by song review of the set but it may take some time!
I’ve been joking that Willy Nelson should maybe drop ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ from his repertoire. Hank’s 1951 recording here is not Willy’s laid back 1974 rendition. This is hard and edgier. Typical of Hank Williams he saves his most intense moments in a song to the end. As soon as the break is over in ‘Blue Eyes’ and we get into ‘Someday when we meet up yonder’ part of the Fred Rose composition, Hank bears right down and delivers the power of  ‘In the land that knows no parting’.

As all Hank fans know a mention of the afterlife is like popping the clutch and reving the engine into a new level in a Hank Williams’ vocal.

Another highlight the best thing on the set as far as I am concerned is ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’. Here Hank’s introduction is left on the recording and he sets the record straight on the Weavers version which he calls a pop version which was on the Hit Parade at the time. Although an authentic folk based group, the Weavers from new York, souped up ‘On top of Old Smokey to a fast paced sort of fun filled novelty song and missed the tragedy in the words. Hanks says he was taught the original version of the song by his Grandmother.
Hank gives the song a slow tragic treatment, hitting the notes strong and long. Hank gives this one what I call his best operatic treatment.

Finally the critics love Hank’s rendition of Cool Water one of the few western style songs I recall Hank doing. But before you mention it, I haven’t forgotten ‘Happy Rovin Cowboy’ the introductory theme for the Health and Happiness shows. Colin Escott in his notes says this may be Hank’s finest vocal performance ever. I don’t think i would go that far, but Hank gives the number his full effort as a singer with the pacing just masterful through the changes in rhythm that are the hallmark of this western classic. Hank grabs and holds those notes as only he can, clear and strong. It’s a silly joke I know, but by the end of this version of ‘Cool Water’ you’re starting to feel a little hot and thirsty.

I’ll be back to this set, and will try to leave a series of links to the reviews I’ve seen as well.

Buy Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings. It’s the greatest addition to the Hank story in our lifetimes.

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I remember the day Hank Williams died. I only mention it because it tells us something about his fame at the time.
I was almost nine and was spending the Christmas break at my Grandparents house. In the dining room of the brick farmhouse in a remote village there was a rather modern plastic radio near a dining room couch. Dining rooms were larger and more furnished in these distant times and living rooms were smaller.
My Grandparents were fans of old time country music, fiddling and barn dances and the like. But they didn’t follow hit parade country and the latest big artists in Nashville very much I don’t think. Television was still some time away. At that time I don’t think they owned a record player. Both came a few years later. So, radio, with dramas, news, women’s shows and more pop music, New York and Hollywood style, on syndicated shows and local productions, were their main sources of entertainment at home. 
There was a standard high ratings local news show each day at 10 minutes to noon. It was on this personality based popular news show that we heard the news that Hank Williams had died. It may not have been January 1, 1953, perhaps it was the next day before we heard the news.
I remember a feeling of genuine shock and disbelief when this news came through. Later, an Uncle who was about 27 or 28 came by. He was more of a fan of Hank Williams than my Grandparents were I think, and this death  became the main topic of conversation during his visit.
I was only 8, nearly 9 and don’t remember much more.
The only other time I recall this feeling of complete utter shock at a death was when Marilyn Monroe died. With the Kennedy assassination you knew what had caused it even though it left everyone shocked stunned with disbelief. Other celebrities deaths, such as say James Dean, were always accompanied by a plausible reason, a traffic accident, air crash or murder. Many of us could see Elvis’ decline as he entered his forties and there were books about it. Somewhere inside we may have thought the worst could happen. 
But with Hank AND Marilyn it was: WHAT? and WHY? 
I relate this story only to show that even in a remote area far from the home of country music or even its bedrock home area in the South, the name Hank Williams had seeped into the inner consciousness of many ordinary people with no special connection to the Nashville star machine or the Grand Old Opry fandom  industry, such as it was, even back then.

Of course, for 99 per cent of people across America and around the world there was likely very little knowledge of the troubles with Hank Williams’ health and his personal life. They just knew the strong, young, healthy, well dressed  good looking guy they saw in photographs and the powerful voice they heard on the radio.

Yes he was a super star even far from Nashville, and his death at such a young age for no apparent reason reverberated and sent sickening shock waves through homes hearts around the world. It made a permanent imprint on a 9 year old who knew nothing about him at the time.

I hope you enjoy this journal about Hank Williams.

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