Archive for December, 2008

Hank Williams, who would have thought? It’s 2009 and you’re bigger than ever in the hot  trendy competitive world of popular music.

Everything has changed since January 1, 1953. Nashville is huge, Country Music or some version of it is more popular than ever, with what are now called superstars everywhere you look. Music is no longer made mechanically with a needle rubbing against bumps in plastic, not electronically with electric charges on plastic tape rolling past a pickup, but digitally up and down wires like a musical telephone.

You may not be surprised to know that your edgy forceful intense vocal style has for the most part been replaced in Country Music  by a more low key microphone friendly style you were able to see and likely secretly admire a bit  in Lefty  Frizzell and even the crooners Eddy Arnold, and George Morgan.

The concept of the singer songwriter which you took from the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers and western movie heroes like Gene Autry, and turned into an art form, has been your lasting, most powerful legacy.

Your true descendants have names like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon,  Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and Neil Young. So the recording studios and music stages are filled with men and women standing alone in the middle, trying desperately to match your creation of a lonely persona seeking to probe the depths of soul destroying despair, and the raucous exuberant joys of life and love. And see both with equal clarity.

Now your lost daughter known as Jett Williams has done you proud by helping to put together a three record set of those old Mother’s Best Flour WSM radio shows from 1952. And Newspapers from around the world and prestigious Literary Journals , and the New York Times , yes New York, and The Los Angeles Times too. Oh yea, a magazine they call the New Yorker.  And a magazine called Rolling Stone the bible of another style of music you pioneered loves the Mother’s Best shows,can’t get enough, and it’s 2009. The things they are saying about your genius, you would never believe.

Your vocal style lived on too, although not so much in Country. It flourished in something called Rock and Roll and in Rhythm and Blues. And a guy who didn’t write his songs, but had your ability to transform himself into the essence of a lyric especially  a gospel lyric, was Elvis Presley. Like you, he could take a song or hymn and make you believe every word and make you believe  that he believed which is something different.  Many  R and B stylists had some  of your powerful vocal presentation which they learned from the long southern blues tradition, say an Otis Redding,  or even James Brown!  The list of rockers who give it all every time is too long to even consider, and everyone would have their own choices.

Oh yes,and most people don’t think the Grand Ole Opry is really doing all that well anymore, and really isn’t very important in the Country Music business. As a  matter matter of fact they tried to cut one of your true musical descendants, Stonewall Jackson, but he beat em off. You would  have been proud.

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The New Yorker is one of the worlds most prestigious Literary Magazines. The weekly magazine publishes the greatest literary authors, and is read by the intelligentsia around the world. In an article on Box Sets of 2008, the reviewer made the following comment on Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings:

Hank Williams, “The Unreleased Recordings” (Time Life)—In 1951, Hank Williams and his band performed live on the Nashville radio program “Mother’s Best Flour.” These fifty-four cuts from the show, which were rescued from a garbage bin, show that Williams was a veritable human jukebox. Irish ballads, forgotten spirituals, and sea shanties offset Williams’ cracked-heart laments, as though he sought refuge in the music of past centuries, even when hawking cornmeal. 

Pretty good I would say. Who would have thought, back in 1951, that the words ‘New Yorker’  and Hank Williams would be used in the same sentence?

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If there is a more powerful, heartfelt tribute to fallen soldiers than Hank Williams rendition of ‘Searching for a Soldiers Grave’, I don’t what it is. As only a handful of singers in the world were able to do, Hank transforms himself into the character and emotions of the searcher.

It catches you by surprise coming part way through Disc 2 of Hank Williams the Unreleased Recordings, just half way through the whole 3 Disc Box set.

The notes by Colin Escott say the song was written by Jim Anglin but sold to Roy Acuff who gets credit, and I guess the royalties. As I recall from some of the biographies of Hank, Jim Anglin and his brother Jack Anglin of Johnny and Jack were friends of Hank and Audrey in the  Shreveport days. Johnny Wright of Johnny and Jack was Kitty Wells’  husband.

This is a very well written song, structured around a quest that is very common today. People who have lost friends and relatives in  war often feel the  need to go to Europe, or to a National Cemetery, or perhaps a shrine like the Vietnam Memorial to pay tribute.

‘Searching for Soldier’s Grave’ of course was written about the horrible losses in the Second World War and a loved one’s journey across the ocean from America to Europe to find the grave. There is an element of suspense throughout as the listener doesn’t know if the grave will be found until near the end. It’s like a pilgrimage.

Hank seems a little unsure of the words and how they fit with the melody as he opens. Remember these recordings are first take, no do overs, and no cutting and splicing, and no overdubs.

As the story unfolds, Hank grows into the skin and becomes the person who mourns a lost loved one or friend, who  died for their country, in a foreign land, many miles away.

Hank is so involved. as he often is, that he takes this song and this story and through the intensity of his vocal, his total commitment to the tragic situation, he takes it up to some universal level which applies to the lost soldiers, and the family, and friends from any war, right up until the present conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A listener with a direct involvement hears the story he or she has already experienced, but also understands that an artist, one who may not have  experienced this pain directly,can translate the experience, so all of  us can experience it, if  not understand it.

Here’s the chorus written by Jim Anglin:

Somewhere here among the many thousands of Americans who all died true and brave,

That’s where I know I’ll find him, resting, so I’m here, I’m searching for his grave.

‘Searching for a Soldiers Grave’ perfectly illustrates the importance of ‘The Unreleased Recordings’. The songs here, many of which Hank didn’t write, show his ability to stretch far from the tragic love stories he was so famous for.

Those of us who are just fans not experts always knew of his ability to express the joy of young love, the crazy humor in marital mishaps, and  the sympathy for those less fortunate. Now we hear more:  in the many hymns, the traditional folk songs  like ‘On Top of Old Smokey’, standards like Cherokee Boogie and Cool Water, and sentimental Victorian laments,we hear a Hank Williams with a broader, deeper understanding.

‘Searching for a lost Soldiers’ Grave’ gives us a glimpse of  Hank’s genius we have rarely  heard before.

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National Public Radio did a 15 minute program on Hank Williams  The Unreleased Recordings back on October 25th. I’m finally getting around to putting up the link.

The segment was part of Weekend Edition hosted by Scott Simon and featured comments from Jett Williams and highlights  from the Box Set.

Simon is s devoted fan and some of his comments are delightful. Jett Williams talks about the difference in sound quality from the MGM studio recordings, and the vocal quality on these radio acetates from WSM. Of course the MGM sessions were also recorded direct to disk so to speak on acetates. Jett says the studio recordings were not pure direct to disk but the sound was altered by limiters and compressors such as are used by recording studios and radio stations.

I always thought the Castle recordings were pure, but it certainly would be interesting to hear more about the recording technology used those days before tape came in. What were the differences between WSM recordings and Castle Studios? Were the ‘Health and Happiness’ shows recorded on the same equipment at Castle? Obviously, I don’t know much about this!

There’s more from Jett at the link, go to listen now button in upper left.

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The New York Times has handed out another rave review of   ‘The Unreleased Recordings’. This one came in a November 27th article on Box Sets for Christmas giving. Several of the top Box Sets of 2008 were reviewed. Here’s the complete article on Hank Williams:

HANK WILLIAMS, ‘THE UNRELEASED RECORDINGS’ Many of Hank Williams’s studio records were nearly perfect, and his voice-and-guitar demos have a trudging, spooky power. But this is something new: three hours’ worth of radio performances with his band, recorded for 15-minute spots on the Nashville station WSM in 1951, at Williams’s commercial peak and before his health turned. (About a year later he would be dead.) Upbeat, he calls out to soloists in his band with satisfaction and pours himself into the performance. His wife Audrey, talentless at singing, is not here: a big plus. The repertory forms a trustworthy picture of his sound world: not just his own songs but white and black gospel, cowboy tunes, obscure contemporary nothings (“You Blotted My Happy Schooldays”), a weirdly breathtaking “On Top of Old Smoky.” And his voice! These recordings get the fullness and breadth of it, the cool, plummy croon turning to a hot laser through some trick of throat and nose. Truly one of the best records ever. (Time-Life, three CDs, $39.98.) BEN RATCLIFF



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