CD Review of The Unreleased Recordings by Hank Williams
Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings
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Hank Williams:
The Unreleased Recordings

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

t’s impossible to overestimate the cultural influence of Hank Williams. Rightly credited as the father of modern country music, the importance of his contributions extends well beyond the pliable borders that separate traditional Americana from the worlds of rock, pop, folk, and even R&B. In a very real sense, Williams ranks as one of America’s greatest songsmiths, right up there with Dylan, Gershwin, Stephen Foster, Paul Simon, and all the other master craftsmen whose music continues to resonate down through the decades.

Sadly, Williams died all too soon, prior to the dawning of the modern musical era, passing away on January 1, 1953, at the modest age of 29. He had been in ill health and when he succumbed, he was in the backseat of a car on the way to yet another in a seemingly endless series of gigs that rarely found him off the road. After only four years in the spotlight, he had already amassed a sizeable body of songs, many of which became standards, all of them sounding as if they had been plucked intact from the very core of the heartland. With uncommon humility, he espoused the view of an ordinary Joe, a common man with an uncommon gift of eloquence, humbled by circumstance but always aspiring to accomplishments well beyond his means. Songs like "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" were informed by disappointment and resignation, a counterpart to the optimistic come-on of the upbeat, yet down-home "Hey, Good Lookin’" or the unassuming perseverance of "I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)."

Those songs, and a handful of other originals, are included on The Unreleased Recordings, a treasure trove of long-lost radio recordings minted at the peak of Williams’ career in 1951 and rescued from destruction nearly 40 years later. It’s hardly a complete retrospective – or even a best-of – but rather a compendium of covers encompassing traditional folk songs, gospel tunes, and a handful of contemporary standards that sandwich his originals. Drawn from Williams’ weekday 15-minute morning broadcasts on Nashville’s WSM (arguably the most influential radio station in the annals of broadcast history), it finds Williams ably identifying with the Everyman – ordinary folks who tended to their chores, kept to their daily routine and listened faithfully as he played his favorite tunes and provided between-song patter. Williams’ musical choices were easy to identify with, given their familiarity – an early version of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," later a hit for Willie Nelson, is especially intriguing – and all reflect a sense of profound reverence and deep devotion. It’s telling that even a take on the childhood favorite "On Top of Old Smoky" manages to sound as soulful and passionate as one of Williams’ own.

Rarities aside, it’s Williams’ originals that stand out here, and not only for the opportunity to hear them newly cast in live performance with a crack backing band adept at harmony, shimmering steel guitar and fiddle finesse. It’s also a chance to revisit his artistry. "You cheated and you lied and you left me flat / Yes it’s true, but I can’t tell my heart that," he croons on "I Can’t Tell My Heart That," taking his listeners into depths of despair. Then there’s this: "Today I passed you on the street / And my heart fell at your feet," lines that provide the opening couplet for "I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)." Rarely has a songwriter expressed such base emotions so plaintively and yet so profoundly.

With a sound quality that shows no evidence of age or another era, and an expansive booklet that gives the history of these recordings and song by song analysis, this three-disc box set ranks as one of the most revelatory collections ever offered. Anyone even remotely interested in the evolution of American music ought to consider it as essential.

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