Hank Williams (1923-53) is the big king-daddy, game-changing hard-country honky tonk god of all time, the singer and songwriter who more than anyone else defined the genre and gave it soul. Other stylists were influential, especially Lefty Frizzell, but it was Hank Williams who infused honky tonk music with a true poetic vision. Hank's songs felt immediate and true -- and they still do, decades later. The list of hits is incredible, but even better is their durability, how fun they are to hear and sing along to, and how vibrant they sound. Williams started his professional career in the 1930s, but really burst onto the country scene after World War Two, and became the most exciting and dominant artist of the era, topping the charts and wowing his fans until his untimely death in 1953. A lifelong struggle with spina bifida, a congenital spinal disorder, led Williams to abuse alcohol and drugs, and in his final years he spiraled downwards, performing while intoxicated, missing shows, and getting kicked off the Grand Ole Opry. Although he was rail-thin, Williams cast a large shadow, and in the early 1950s he influenced an entire generation of singers, including his friend Ray Price (who took over his band after his death) and numerous others.
The Hank Williams musical legacy includes several family members: his first wife, Audrey Williams, sang with his for several years and was the mother of Hank Williams, Jr. who became a chart-topper himself in the 1970s; Hank Jr.'s son, Hank Williams III, has also recorded several excellent albums. His granddaughters, Jett Williams and Holly Williams, are also recording artists.
Here's a quick look at his work...
Hank Williams "40 Greatest Hits" (Polydor, 1978)
For many, Hank Williams is the ultimate honkytonk hero, and, indeed, you won't find me saying anything bad about anything he ever recorded. Of course, after his untimely death in 1953, old Hank has been a major cash-cow for the assorted record companies that have owned his material, and his catalog has been pretty thoroughly mined, combed over, remixed and repackaged over the years. Not until the very end of the vinyl era, though, was much thought given to releasing his music as he recorded it... Countless "fake" stereo LPs came out on MGM and other labels, with bad vocal overdubs and the like. It wasn't until this double LP collection (now a 2-CD set) came out in 1978 that the general public had a chance to hear Hank at his gloomy, hell-bent, bone-rattling monophonic best. Sure, there are your various fancy Japanese imports or collosal everything-he-ever-done box sets, but this collection really has most everything the average listener could want, including dozens of great hits such as "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Mind Your Own Business", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Move It On Over" and "You Win Again". It's pretty awesome. Of course, if this isn't enough for you, there's still all that expensive stuff as well... but this should make you plenty happy, in a bummed out kind of way.
Hank Williams "Alone With His Guitar" (Mercury/Universal, 2000)
Keeping in mind what I said above, it's also pretty nice that super-cool discs like this can still pop up and surprise us all. This set of solo acoustic tracks has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that it is all in unadulterated mono and that the song selection tends towards lesser-known material, including Hank covering a lot of stuff written by other folks. These old demos and radio broadcasts give us a nice glimpse of Hank as a working artist, rather than just the country music demigod we all know and love today. Since I personally will never, ever be able to afford the fab rarities box set that this material originally appeared, it sure is nice to hear it on one single, affordable CD. Highly recommended!
Hank Williams "The Ultimate Collection" (Mercury Nashville, 2002)
The 21st Century update of the 40 Greatest Hits collection listed above, this fine 2-CD set has a lot of overlap, but also veers off in new directions, taking advantage of all the Hank Williams rarities that have come out of the vaults in the past couple of decades. This has 42 tracks total, including a bunch of radio performances and demos, as well as a "Luke The Drifter" tune or two. This is a nicely balanced Hank collection, highlighting him in a variety of settings, but also of necessity means that some of the more canonical Williams hits (which are on the earlier best-of) had to be nudged out to make room for the new material. Still, it's Hank. How could you go wrong?? Highly recommended.
Hank Williams "The Complete Hank Williams" (Mercury Nashville, 1998)
Man, I wish I could afford this fabulous 9-CD box set, but since I can't, I'll just have to content myself with steering those of you who have more disposable income into its orbit. Hank Williams was great. There are few artists ever who have matched his intensity or appeal, and even though this is an awful lot of his stuff, it's all really good. Apparently, despite the title, there is a fair amount of material that is omitted from this collection, but still this is an awful lot of good music to find in one place at one time. Doubtless more Hank rarities will continue to pop up from time to time, and somebody will tackle this territory again sometime... but I think it's safe to say that this will be the definitive Hank document for some time to come. Highly recommended! (PS - if you're looking for the material that isn't included in this box set, the most significant omissions are his live performances from the Health and Happiness shows, which have meanwhile been reissued as their own CD.)
Hank Williams "The Health And Happiness Shows" (PolyGram, 1993)
Speaking of which, here's a link to that fab 2-CD set. Sadly, it seems to be out of print, but I trust that someone somewhere in the Universal corporate structure will have the smarts to correct this situation. A great snapshot of Hank Williams at the peak of his powers, playing live on radio shows sponsored by Hadacol, the last of the great patent medicines. Nice, raw performances presented in their full monophonic splendor.
Hank Williams "The Unreleased Recordings" (Time-Life, 2008)
Just when you think you've heard it all, the vaults of time peel open to reveal more fabulous gems than we ever thought we'd find. In this case, it's a 3-CD box set of live performances by the great Hank Williams, recordings originally made for the Mother's Best Flour Company back in 1951. Legend has it that the master tapes for these performances was saved from the dumpster (!) where they promptly wound up at the center of the long-running feud between Hank's various heirs. I guess Jett Williams' victory is a victory for us as well, 'cause these old recordings sure do sound sweet. The repertoire includes a lot of stuff that Williams never recorded on disc, and draws heavily on folk and gospel repertoires, as well as cowboy tunes (like "Cool Water") and of course there are a few old Hank Williams classics such as "Hey Good Lookin'," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Country gospel fans, in particular, will be wowed by this collection, as it is heavy on hymns and religious ballads, all of it delivered in that soulful, haunting style that Williams did so well. The entire trove of recordings included almost 150 songs; this collection reissues about a third of them... So, who knows? Maybe the vaults will open again someday soon? In the meantime, diehard Hank fans will definitely want to scoop this box set up.
Hank Williams "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings... Plus" (Time-Life, 2010)
Bigger and better still! This massive box set expands on the earlier 3-CD collection, upping the ante to include a full fifteen discs worth of live radio transcription performances from 1951, Hank Williams at his dissolute, jovial best, with lots of classics and gospel songs galore. Best of all, there's the ambiance of an old-fashioned live radio show, with Hank Williams joshing around with bandmembers and the emcee, with Williams sounding slick at times, or sometimes soused or bleary-eyed from a long night of hard living... And yet, the man was always soulful and surprisingly sincere, considering what a ne'er-do-well he was. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the many performances by Hank's wife, Audrey Williams, who appears only fleetingly in the official studio recordings, and has long been reviled as an off-key warbler, sort of the Yoko Ono of classic country. But here, with prolonged exposure on one broadcast after another, it's easier to hear her as a credible country artist, a rough-edged, rural gal singer very much in the same style as the then up-and-coming Kitty Wells. All in all, this collection really is a great archival find, one that Hank Williams fans will be all too happy to delve into. Highly recommended!
Hank Williams "The Legend Begins: Rare And Unreleased Recordings" (Time-Life, 2011)
Finding old vanity recordings, acetates and self-released singles has become a "thing" among country uber-collectors, but who could have imagined that there were ancient demo recordings by none other than the legendary, pioneering honky-tonk hero, Hank Williams? Sure 'nuff, hoss: this new 3-CD includes a brief, grainy snippet of a 15-year old Hank Williams singing a verse of "Fan It," way back in 1938(!) soaring above an accordion-based western swing band. The voice is unmistakable - piercing, full of life, and also very young, without the weighty pathos of Hank's adult career. It's actually Hank's very first recording, one of a handful of historical gems acquired by the Hank Williams family and restored by audio engineers at the family's request. Also included are four songs from 1940, where a robust-voiced Williams is experimenting with with vocal phrasing, singing folk and blues oldies, and even a version of Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose." Williams became an icon of the postwar honkytonk sound -- hearing him at work before the war is a real treat. Most of this collection is of radio airshots drawn from the "Health And Happiness" shows, along with his wife Audrey Williams and fiddler Jerry Rivers; also included is a short March of Dimes broadcast from 1951. As with all these sort of live shows, there's a charming informality and down-home feel, interwoven with hillbilly showbiz schtick... The big draw here is the set of early demos, but it's all great stuff! Another treat for Hank fans everywhere.
Hank Williams "The Lost Concerts" (Time-Life, 2012)
The excavation of Hank Sr's legacy continues with yet another concert collection -- this might be for completists only... It doesn't add anything revelatory to the canon, but it's still cool stuff.
Hank Williams "The Garden Spot Programs, 1950" (Omnivore, 2014)
Over the decades, and especially in the last few years, there have been a lot of great collections that dig into the vaults and discover "new" live recordings by the great Hank Williams. This set distinguishes itself by its excellent sound quality, and by the quality of the music, which features Williams working with musicians who weren't in his Drifting Cowboys band, giving a more ornate, flowery sound than on many of his rather stark, spooky studio recordings. These tracks were recorded in Nashville for transcription discs that were sent out to Iowa, specially commissioned for the Naughton Farms' "Garden Spot" radio programs, and while they sound "live" due to the introductions by a local deejay, it was really Williams working with some (unknown) Nashville hotshots. The steel guitar, in particular, features sweet, ornate riffs that stand in contrast to the normally compact, concise Hank Williams honkytonk, and there's some hot, hoedown-style fiddle that spices things up. Also, in addition to big hits like "Lovesick Blues," these sessions feature some less well-known tunes, like the sentimental "I've Just Told Mama Goodbye" and "I Can't Get You Off Of My Mind," as well as a few swell gospel tunes. Even if you've been getting Hank reissue fatigue, this set is worth checking out -- there's some really nice material that'll prove quite rewarding!
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