Reviewers of the Unreleased Recordings have often found the Son’s of the Pioneers Bob Nolan song ‘Cool Water’ to be Hank Williams greatest performance on the 3 CD Box Set.
I should say that ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ runs a strong second with many reviewers as Hank’s greatest vocal performance on the Box Set, if not ever.
As noted by Ellis Widner in the Arkansas Gazette, Hank’s version of ‘Cool Water’ takes the song to new levels:
But the best track? It just may be his cover of the Sons of the Pioneers’ hit “Cool Water,” a Bob Nolan song that has been sung around many a campfire, but rarely with the depth Williams brings to it. His desolate voice embodies the song’s loneliness and amplifies its spiritual/ psychological metaphors.
Every Hank Williams fan has had to deal with this issue. What is it about Hank’s vocals that is so special, and that some listeners seem to miss?
Both Widner in the Arkansas paper and Citizen K ,a blogger I sited earlier, tried to deal with this issue. Citizen K had this to say about ‘Cool Water’:
He turns the campfire song “Cool Water” into a Conradian , a tale of a parched soul pleading for deliverance only to find that redemption is a mirage. Through this performance, Williams reveals his ultimate fear: That the journey is not the reward, but just another part of the horror. Even so, moving on beats standing still, which leads to madness. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and the occasional whisper of a pedal steel guitar, Hank’s deliberate phrasing summons a paradoxical sense of inevitability. It’s a bravura performance, arguably Williams’ finest vocal, and by itself worth the price of admission.
I’m a late comer to this analysis, but would like to take a run at summing it up this way:
Did Hank Williams have an ability, perhaps unconscious, to reach in to the meaning of words in popular, religious, and folk songs, and see whole new levels of meaning that other performers, listeners, and even the songwriters themselves did not comprehend, and through an intensity of performance and reach of the imagination, bring to this music a whole new level of meaning?
This what we are dealing with in ‘Cool Water’.
Despite his cowboy persona with the suits and hats and the ‘Drifting Cowboys’ band name, Hank did not specialize in cowboy or even westerrn songs. Although, as some reviewer has mentioned, the big exception was ‘Happy Rovin Cowboy’ used as the Introduction to the ‘Health and Happiness’ Shows.
‘Cool Water’ perhaps reveals a mature vocal style which, had he lived, would have dominated his work in the future. ‘Rambling Man’ and ‘Kawliga’ come to mind as later examples of his growing skill. Here we hear such a variety of tones from the raw emotional power he’s noted for in the first part of the chorus, but in then a soft, gently tone as he sings the title. All of his immense skills, except for the pure rock of ‘Honky Tonk Blues’, is revealed as seldom ever before or again in this performance.
From the quiet foreboding of the “each star’s a pool of water” ” to the brilliant clear high notes of “souls that cry for water”, and “waiting there for you and me”, Hank explores depths of meaning described by the writers quoted above. He certainly feels elements in this song that go so much deeper than a story of a man and his mule crossing the western desert. What is the longing he feels in the line, “cool, clear water”?
I have never been a great follower of western songs or this particular ‘Sons of the Pioneers’ classic. When it comes to Hank’s greatest vocal performance, I’ve always been partial to the chorus of ‘Beyond the Sunset’.
But Hank certainly felt something in this song that inspired him to explore levels of meaning far beyond what previous performers had understood. It stands out as one of the true highlights of ‘The Unreleased Recordings’.