Archive for November, 2010

Hank used ‘Happy Rovin Cowboy’ as his theme song on the ‘Health and Happiness Shows’. This reflects Hank’s love of cowboy imagery in the name of his band, and his stage costumes. Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers was the writer. The song also reflects Hank’s near obsession with the afterlife. Hank sings the opening of this song eight times, and each time grabs a hold on the last line, ” I’ll sing this song, till they call me home to the land beyond the blue”.

This is Part II of what will be a three-part discussion of these live to disk radio program recordings which were made in the fall of 1949 when Hank had just turned 26.

Hank’s voice is rich but restrained on the first song ‘Wedding Bells’. As with all of the recordings on ‘Health and Happiness’ Hank gives it everything he has in the knowledge that these shows will likely be played many times at radio stations across the south.

The versions of ‘Lovesick Blues’ on these programs are  probably the definitive take on Hank’s biggest hit during his lifetime. This is a better recording than the original hit version he recorded in Cincinnati. I think one of the two versions of ‘Lovesick Blues’ we find on ‘Health and Happiness’ is the one used over and over again on later compilations where you hear the band applause at the end.

On Show 2 Hank renders one of his deepest most profound singing performances on a hymn he calls “one of the best that  anyone ever wrote”, ‘The Tramp on the Street’ written by Grady and Hazel Cole.

I’ve always thought Hank Williams had a profound sympathy for the poor, the  destitute, the downtrodden.  Had he lived he might have developed a political edge like a Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen. In our times this old time Christianity that preaches that the lowest among us will be rewarded in heaven and be united with Jesus is out of fashion. But when you hear Hank Williams sing ‘The Tramp on the Street’ you can believe that if Jesus  came to your door he would come dressed as a tramp on the street. And that Jesus when crucified was left to die like a tramp in the street a homeless person we might see today. And that if you turn away a beggar at your door you have turned away Jesus himself. The writer draws direct parallels between the lowest level of humanity and Jesus. And if you turn away the tramp you have turned away Jesus and will be denied a place in heaven. Hank sings every word of this with  a forcefulness and sincerity that says “I believe this is the absolute truth”.

Show 3 features ‘I’m a Long Gone Daddy’ and ‘When God Comes and Gathers his Jewel’ two familiar Hank Williams’ compositions, as well as ‘I’m Telling You’ by Audrey.

The first song after the theme on Show 4 is a definitive performance of one of Hank’s most enduring signature songs. It’s the Leon Payne composition ‘Lost Highway”.Of course this title has been used as a TV documentary title, and is the name of the current Hank Williams record label which ironically has dropped ‘The Health and Happiness Shows’ from his catalogue.

The sound quality on this classic cut is superb. Hank’s voice is rich and deep. ‘Lost Highway’ is a song that requires a huge range as a singer and an ability to grab and hit the notes right out of thin air so to speak. You have to be right on with no chance to wander around the melody and fake it. You can’t cheat when you sing ‘Lost Highway’.

Hank was rarely if ever insincere in his delivery, but in this performance you can hear immediately that Hank understands this song, although he didn’t write it, encapsulates the life story of Hank Williams. On some of the phrases his voice is sharp and aching at the same time, delivering a picture of his own reality as I am sure he understood it:  “Just a deck of cards and jug of wine, and a woman’s lies make a life like mine”, “Now I’m lost, too late to pray”,   “Don’t ramble on this road of sin, or you’re sorrow bound”, “Alone and a lost, For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost”. The depth of his understanding is palpable, as he hits those perfect tragic notes clear  as a bell every time.

This bring to an end my second article on “The Health and Happiness Shows”. Show 4 ends Disc 1. And that completes my look at the work Hank did on a Sunday afternoon in October 1949. In my final article I will take a look at some of the performances on Disc 2, the four 15 minute shows recorded on the next Sunday afternoon.

Read Full Post »

Hank Williams fans have been excited recently about the release of stunning recordings of the Mother’s Best Flour radio programs  from  1951.

The  breadth of musical interest  shown by Hank Williams in the Mother’s Best transcriptions and the richness and depth of his vocal style as he stretched his powers into songs such as ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ and ‘Cool Water’ and ‘Searching for  a Soldiers Grave’ have changed our appreciation of Hank  Williams forever.

But almost two years earlier, in October of 1949, Hank Williams recorded eight live to disk 15 minute radio programs for distribution to radio stations. These were called ‘Health and Happiness’ shows because the original sponsor was supposed to be the Hadacol Corporation. That patent medicine company had employed Hank and a collection of country music and Hollywood stars on a traveling sales caravan earlier in the year. Actually the Hadocol company had gone broke during the caravan and so the producer decided not identify the company  in the programs  and just left blank spaces so that any sponsor name could be inserted. The words “health and happiness” would serve to give the sponsor a nice plug without narrowing it down any further.

But there are a lot of interesting revelations of Hank’s genius on these first live to disk radio shows from 1949.. Rather than being recorded over the space of a year as ‘Mother’s Best’ were, ‘Health and Happiness’ shows were recorded four each on two successive Sundays.

There really aren’t any surprising selections such as we find on ‘Mother’s Best’. Of course,  a lot of Hank’s most famous songs hadn’t been written yet! But as Colin Escott mentions in the liner notes, Hank sang with an intensity that shows he knew that these acetates would be played over and over on radio stations all across the south and knew it was his chance to make a huge impact on country music and , more importantly, on generations to come. He knew these shows would last.

There may be some disagreement on this, but I would say the ‘Health and Happiness’ shows are more slickly and professionally produced than ‘Mother’s Best’. The announcer is the WSM Grand Ole Opry  premier announcer Grant Turner. There is less chat and so less is revealed about Hank’s personality, and so for each 15 minute show there are three full songs, plus intro, extro, and instrumental interlude. On Mother’s Best presumably because  of the number of shows they needed to fill, there are only two songs plus an instrumental, but more talk and live commercials for Mother’s Best Flour.

Some may find it a big drawback that on the first four shows there are performances by Audrey Williams. But I’m glad she’s on there for the historical record if nothing else. For the record, here are Audrey’s contributions: Show 1: duet on ‘Where the Soul of Man Never Dies’; Show 2: solo on ‘There’s a Bluebird on Your Windowsill’, Show 3: solo on I’m telling You’ and Show 4: duet on ‘I Want to Live and Love’.

Sadly and really unbelievably ‘The Health and Happiness Shows’ 2CD package has been deleted by Hank’s current record company Lost Highway which is a spin-off of Mercury Nashville. The original was released in 1993 under the Polygram label. Fortunately, both new and used copies of the set are still available at Amazon.

In Part II I will take a look at some of  Hank’ solo performances on ‘The Health and Happiness  Shows’.

Read Full Post »

Creative writers need editors. Every novelist, poet, filmmaker and yes songwriter needs somebody to take a second  look at his work which is often composed in a creative rush of inspiration. If we saw the original submissions of famous novels, the raw footage of classic movies, and original drafts of classic poetry and plays, we wouldn’t recognize many of them. Editors cut stuff, move things around, make suggestions, even make changes and additions. That is just how the artistic world works. And Hank Williams as Fred Rose knew was a great artist but he needed a great Editor.

As Beecher O’Quinn points out in the newsletter I wrote about in the last post, Rose had a reputation as a song writer on his own merits. O’Quinn recounts how hard Rose worked on his music, took it seriously, and went over songs over and over again. He also says Rose had a policy of not taking credit unless he wrote 80% of a song. But I think a major point is that Rose was willing to take credit when he thought he deserved it. The opposite must be true: He would not take credit is he didn’t deserve it.

Every one of the Hank Williams biographies talks about how Hank and Fred Rose would meet to go over songs. In some case Rose took a credit. In most he did not. The reason he did not is that he was a very honest man who says his role as an editor for a very gifted young artist.

I think sometimes that Hank Williams was ALWAYs young. He was a genius and a creative dynamo with an original lyric. But he was not well educated as a musician or a writer. But the help he got is similar to dozens of famous writers you could name. He needed guidance. Rose obviously saw the youth, the spark, the enthusiasm, the creative originality.

The article by Dave Hickey in the ‘New Literary History of America’ called ‘The Song in Country Music’ is about Hank Williams’   craftsmanship. This was obviously the trait that Rose saw which reminded him of himself.  The Hickey article works on the theme that Hank Williams’ lyrics were sung over and over again and that poetic devices around the use of internal rhymes and vowel repetitions came from Hank’s going over and over them as a singer. None of this work by Hank alone can be laid at the feet of Fred Rose, but he sure knew what it was when he saw it.

I wonder if Hank’s creative spark perhaps inspired Rose as much as the influence was the other way around. An up tempo Rose song like ‘Settin the Woods on Fire’ has a Hank Williams style. A ballad like ‘Take These Chains’ also has hints of Hank.

Looking at his whole output I think it’s fair to say Rose was, well let’s say it directly, “He was no Hank Williams!!”

One of his most famous  compositions  ‘Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain’ is overwritten, and overwrought,  and it’s grossly overly sentimental. It resembles some of Hank’s weaker efforts, and comes nowhere near the spare, haunting, coldly original language  we find in the best of Hank Williams. ‘Take These Chains’ is similar; great, but not Hank.

Hank Williams had a direct, burning way with words, a power over language that seared the soul. He had directness and a clean clear sparseness and poetic originality in his writing: “a picture from the past came slowly stealing”, “but now I know your heart is shackled to a memory.”

So I’m saying Fred Rose was very important. I can imagine the truth in a story I’ve  read that says he suggested a change from “I Lose Again” to “You Win  Again”  in that famous song. Definitely possible and credible. That’s what editors do. But in his own country music writing there is an element of consciously composing what he knows will fit in the picture or the genre of country melody and language, but which lacks something of the absolute directness and honesty of real country.

In short, can anyone imagine Fred Rose writing ‘Hey Good Lookin’? No. Case closed.

As regular reader’s of this blog may remember I wrote an article devoted to praising the Fred Rose and Maurice Murray composition ‘Crazy Heart’ which recently was used as the title of a country music movie. So my admiration for Rose is already on the record. Here is my post on ‘Crazy Heart’. To me that song’s forceful rhythm building on Hank’s early ‘Move it on Over’ really helped establish Hank’s claim to be an early innovator in the road to rock and roll.

This is not to say ‘The  Tennessee Waltz’ is not an all time great of country music as are other Rose compositions. But despite how closely they worked together, I see a very clear difference between the works of Fred Rose and those of Hank Williams.

Finally, I want to direct you to some information about Fred Rose and Hank Williams on the Hank Williams Appreciation Society website.

Read Full Post »

The last year of Hank Williams’ life, when he lived apart from Audrey on Westwood Avenue in Nashville, is recounted in an interesting and informative article in the latest edition of the International Traditional Country Music Fan Club newsletter.

Club President Beecher O’Quinn Jr has written the 20 page illustrated history of Hank’s life from January to August 1952 in a special Hank Williams Issue of the newsletter. Beginning with a review of Hank’s position in the country music world as the year 1952 began, O’Quinn goes on to chronicle  Hank’s life on an almost day to day basis from his serious back surgery on December 13th to the firing from the Opry in August.

O’Quinn has a wonderful knowledge of the recording and writing of Hank’s songs at the time. He also details all of the other country and pop singers who were recording Hank’s songs and where they were on the pop and country charts of the time.He also reviews the concerts Hank played shortly after his back surgery. Many writers have concentrated only on the ones that were missed or poorly reviewed; O’Quinn gives a more fair description of the concerts Hank did make as well as the ones missed. Quinn does not spend much time on the debilitating effects of Hank’s surgery. But I have written a commentary on the topic which I think it’s important that every Hank Williams fan read.

My article on Hank Williams back surgery is HERE.

In some of the biographies and descriptions of Hank’s life in 1952, you could get the impression that the entire year was spent in an alcohol and drug induced stupor. Yes it is true that Hank Williams behaviour and health were on a downward spiral in 1952. But the O’Quinn article also outlines his accomplishments as a writer, recording artist and touring musician.

It is in these dark times that Hank Williams made trips to New York to appear on two Kate Smith programs and one Perry Como show. As far as a I know, and I am not an expert on these matters, the videos of the Kate Smith appearances are the only decent videos or film of Hank Williams in actual live performance with sound. And those performances of ‘Hey Good Lookin’  and ‘I Can’t Help It’ among others, are extraordinary. One of the greatest vocals in the Hank Williams’ catalogue is his first line in the ‘I Can’t Help it’ performance with Anita Carter from the Kate Smith show.

I shouldn’t leave out that O’Quinn also tells the story of Hank’s romantic entanglements with Bonnie Jett and Billy Jean.

I admire the way O’Quinn acknowledges the contribution of Fred Rose to Hank’s creative output. He says,

Hank’s fans often like to downplay Fred Rose’s role in Hank’s  legacy. But they are wrong or simply unwilling to face the facts. Certainly, no one in the country industry of that period ever doubted it.

What I have noticed is that Rose did not hesitate to take writing credit when he thought he deserved it. So when he takes a credit on a Hank hit that tells you something. But the reverse is true. When Rose doesn’t take a credit, it must mean that the bulk of the song was Hank’s creative work and Rose acted as an editor.Every great creative artist has had an editor who bears some responsibility for that writer’s success.

In conclusion, giving Rose full credit as an editor and a songwriter in his own right takes nothing away from Hank Williams’s achievement. I think in his short discussion of this issue O’Quinn unlike many others gets the relationship between Hank and Rose just about right. I guess I say that because I agree with him, although Quinn may hold  Rose’s songs in a bit higher regard than I do.

Overall, if you want a very detailed fair description of Hank’s life in 1952, you should read this 20 page newsletter. For once a writer who does not exploit Hank’s problems for his own sensationalism, and who focusses as much on Hank’s achievements as he does on his personal life.

You can get an email address for the Traditional Country Music Fan Club web site at this location:


Reading O’Quinn’s discussion of Fred Rose has inspired me to put down some of my thoughts on the subject which I will release in a few days.

Read Full Post »