Considering the seismic impact Hank Williams had on country music, it's remarkable to think that his recording career lasted a mere six years -- he signed with MGM Records in early 1947, and was found dead in the back of his Cadillac en route to a gig on the first day of 1953. Williams was a prolific recording artist during that period, cutting an impressive 68 singles in addition to appearing as a regular guest on WSM's weekly Grand Ole Opry
broadcast from Nashville and maintaining a punishing schedule of personal appearances. Given Williams' overloaded agenda, it's hard to imagine why he'd agree to also host an early-morning radio show five days a week, but starting in January 1951, he did just that, performing from 7:15 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. every Monday through Friday on WSM, sponsored by Mother's Best Flour. The show lasted for 15 weeks, and since Williams was frequently out on the road and unable to make it into the studio for live broadcasts, he recorded most of the Mother's Best programs in advance. Thankfully, a Williams fan at WSM had the presence of mind to save the transcription discs of the Mother's Best shows when they were in danger of being thrown away, and after years of legal wrangling over the rights to the recordings, the Hank Williams estate has finally arranged for an authorized release of this material. The Unreleased Recordings
is a three-disc set that features 54 songs from the Mother's Best broadcasts, and for serious Hank Williams fans this collection was well worth the wait. The quality of the recordings is usually as good as his studio sessions of the period and often better, with Williams' vocals frequently sounding stronger and more resonant than on his singles, and the performances are strong but casual at the same time.
For these shows, Williams and his band the Drifting Cowboys
usually worked out the set lists on the fly, and it's said that the bandmembers often found themselves playing tunes they'd never formally rehearsed for the radio audience. But despite all that, the musicians follow Williams with skill and confidence, and the emotional force of Williams' vocals is an impressive thing to hear. Though a number of Williams' greatest hits are on the song list (sometimes before they were recorded for mass consumption), some of the most remarkable moments come when he pulls classic country and gospel favorites from the songbook: "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Cool Water" are given unexpectedly powerful and dramatic readings; "Cherokee Boogie" and "Tennessee Border" sound enthusiastic and energetic in the hands of the Drifting Cowboys; and white gospel classics like "Softly and Tenderly," "Dust on the Bible," and "I'll Fly Away" are delivered with genuine fervor, as Williams and his band join their voices together for some stellar harmonies. Given how Hank Williams' body of work has been extensively recycled and repackaged in the 50-plus years since his passing, the discovery of a cache of unheard Williams sessions would be good news even under the least favorable circumstances, but The Unreleased Recordings
presents the country legend not only in fine form, but essaying some unexpected material with heart, soul, and savvy; it won't replace the man's essential catalog, but it certainly brings a welcome new perspective to his music as well as his influences.