KUTX Music Editor Jeff McCord’s take on the box sets to buy this holiday season. Albums are rated on a five-point scale.
In 1951, WSM, the clear channel Nashville station that brought the Grand Ole Opry show into living rooms across the country, invited one of the show’s stars, Hank Williams, to host a weekday fifteen-minute early morning program, sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour Company. Flour company sponsorships had already been vital to the careers of Milton Brown and Bob Wills among others, and King Biscuit Flour was to beaming deep blues across the south. The Opry itself is, to this day, sponsored by Martha White Flour. Mother’s Best had a simple format: Williams would generally feature a guest and play a couple of songs himself, one of them usually a sacred selection. Since the program came at the height of Williams’ fame, his numerous road commitments forced him to pre-record a lot of these programs. Fortunately, these programs were recorded straight to acetates, instead of audiotape that would surely have been reused. Still, they were largely forgotten until decades later, rescued by a keen-eyed engineer just before being tossed into the trash. Radio transcriptions, those few that have survived, can be a tough listen. Sound quality is often poor, some of it home recordings, or third or fourth generation copies. Announcers prattle on, sponsors sell, often right over the musical performances. But the Mother’s Best shows were preserved, resulting in first or second-generation copies, all remastered here. This material has been released before, at least some of it, with announcers, guests and advertising intact. Here, producer Cheryl Pawleski wisely trims it to just Williams’ performances and select bits of his studio chatter. The result is a wealth of professionally recorded tunes spread over six CDs, significantly adding to Williams’ 250 some odd MGM studio recordings. On the radio, Williams seems at ease, his asides providing a furtive glimpse of his personality. He seems to relish playing what he wants, his classic songs as well as forgotten gems, and great interpretations of others instead of just the small group of publishers dictated to him by MGM. For a man who drank himself to his grave by age 29, Williams has a reputation (deserved, especially towards the end) as a no-show drunk, but what we hear on these recordings is a consummate professional knocking out one great live take after another. Amazingly, these sessions were often recorded after the second 11 pm Saturday Opry show, so Williams and band could roll out on the endless highway. The collection also features a hardbound 272-page book of rare photographs and brief but contextual notes by Williams historian Colin Escott. Despite never drifting from his country roots, Williams stands as one of the most prolific and gifted American songwriters of any genre. These 1951 recordings reinforce the tragedy of a career cut way too short.
Review by Jeff McCord