From Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal, Fall 2020
(Note: Minor corrections made to published text.)
Hank Williams – Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings. BMG 538515140, ISBN 9781947026650 (6 CDs, 272-page book). US$69.99 from amazon.com.
Reviewed by Sarah Bryan
This is a dilemma I haven’t often faced as a reviewer: a release so exceptional that if I use the superlatives that come to mind, the reader will think I’m either hopelessly hyperbolic, or somehow stand to benefit from its sales. The latter is certainly not the case, and I’ll leave it to readers who buy this set to decide about the former.
Pictures from Life’s Other Side is a six-disc set of newly remastered recordings of Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys’ 1951 Mother’s Best Flour radio shows, with a hardbound book containing hundreds of photographs. The set was produced by Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Creative, with associate producer Scott Bomar of BMG, and audio mastering engineer Michael Graves of Osiris Studio. Williams biographer Colin Escott and Bomar wrote the notes, Jett Williams, Hank’s daughter, wrote the forward, and Ken Campanile provided additional content and photo research. While the book is an equally important component of the release, this review will focus mainly on the audio recordings.
Made between January and November of 1951 at WSM in Nashville, these shows were prerecorded spots sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. (Presented here are the songs themselves, with limited banter before and after, and not the full shows.) Famously, WSM is said to have been about to discard the acetate discs during its move to a new location, when photographer Les Leverette stepped in and saved them. Alan Stoker, Curator of Recorded Sound and Preservation Engineer at the Country Music Hall of Fame, made the new from-scratch transfers of the recordings from which this release draws. They were then mastered and restored by Michael Graves, to astounding effect.
This 2019 release is not the first time the Mother’s Best shows have been made available. But surely they haven’t sounded so good since the discs were cut. After decades of loving Hank Williams’ recordings, and listening to them both on 78s pressed during his lifetime and on modern CD and digital reissues, I found these newly remastered Mother’s Best shows revelatory. The experience is similar to that of someone who has spent years listening to blues and country music from the 1920s and ’30s – but has only heard them in reissues – hearing, for the first time, the same music played from clean 78s on a high-quality period phonograph. There’s so much richness, texture, and auditory information that you would never have guessed was there.
The Mother’s Best recordings are, of course, from a different era, made and played with very different technologies, but hearing them as presented in Pictures from Life’s Other Side, the emotional effect is very much the same. It’s intimate and human. For the listener who already loves Hank Williams’ music, it’s moving to encounter him like this: almost disconcertingly near.
Hank Williams was a brilliant singer, but not a pretty singer. He had a singular talent for using the harshest register of his voice, delivering a serrated edge that could sound like a treeful of cicadas all using power tools when he really let loose. With the incredibly detailed sound quality on these recordings, we can hear what a subtle mastery Williams had of the harsh tones. He prefigured the rockabilly and rock-and-roll singers who would cultivate roughness, but it’s hard to think of a later singer who could do what he did. His voice wasn’t a tool with a single rough edge and different volumes, but one with countless facets and textures, constantly changing relationships of air and flesh. It was country coloratura.
And what a band he had. The Drifting Cowboys – in this incarnation, Don Helms (steel player), Jerry Rivers (fiddler), Sammy Pruett (electric guitarist), and Cedric Rainwater (bassist Howard Watts) – had just what one would hope for in a backing band for a star. They were expert musicians and skilled harmony vocalists, who could set aside their individual egos as performers in such a way that they neither distracted from the star nor, almost as importantly, from each other. Whatever their relationship might have been off the air, in these recordings they project musical camaraderie. The band is so streamlined that it wasn’t until I read the liner notes that I realized there were four rather than three men backing Williams. The Drifting Cowboys created a clean, cohesive, often sweet setting for his singing; and the richness and clarity of these recordings allows us to shift our attention at will to their skill as individual artists.
One exception to the above: there is one band member who sometimes distracts, but it’s in such a good way that it can only be considered an enhancement. In the ensemble singing on these recordings, the high harmonies are really remarkable. The liner notes don’t specify who was singing which part, and I’ve struggled to find definitive confirmation elsewhere, but I’m fairly sure that it’s Cedric Rainwater’s voice that so stands out. Whichever man it was, he had a gentle falsetto in the best early bluegrass style, and an unconventional instinct for where in a line the higher notes belonged, so those notes sometimes come as an eerie and lovely surprise.
On several recordings, Audrey Williams joins her husband for an old-time gospel number. Audrey Williams has gotten a bad rep. Hank himself reportedly told his band that she couldn’t sing. Her problem wasn’t so much that she couldn’t sing, though, as that she sang in a style that was passé – rather than being a postwar crooner, she was an old-time rural gospel-style singer, in a form that places greater value on natural delivery and fervent conviction than technical polish. Admittedly she wasn’t a great singer even in that style, but she wasn’t bad. Her intonation wasn’t always on point, and she made an occasional false start, but she had a feeling for the music. In a town like the one she was from – Banks, Alabama, population 179 in the 2010 census – she could have sung in church without people in the neighboring pews glancing at her hintingly. If she’d been a generation older and turned up at a recording call put out by Polk Brockman or Ralph Peer in the 1920s, she’d have had no trouble getting a record made, at least as part of a group. She might even have had a callback for a second location session…though probably not train fare to New York or Camden. I think her reputation has suffered a bit from the Yoko Ono Effect: she had the blessing and curse of being married to an artistic genius to whom she could never measure up, and whose fans so adored him that her existence in his life only made them jealous and resentful.
The 144 tracks on six discs include many of the songs one would expect, his major MGM titles like “Move It On Over,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” and the like. (Thankfully, “Kaw-Liga” doesn’t make an appearance.) When introducing one of his hits, or just after finishing it, Williams often indulged in a running joke of improvising a new title. “Cold, Cold Heart” becomes “Cold, Cold, Froze-Up Heart.” “Move It On Over,” the lyrics of which are an extended spinning-out of the marital “in the doghouse” metaphor, becomes “Move Over, Short Dog, Let the Tall Dog In, She Won’t Let You Sleep In the House.” He retitles “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” as “I Just Can’t Help It, If I Could I Would, But I Can’t, So Therefore I Can’t Help It.”
He also sings quite a few songs for Mother’s Best that he hadn’t commercially recorded, or from records that created less of a splash. There are some real oddball selections interspersed. For example, in a show from the spring of 1951, Williams sings, of all things, “On Top of Old Smokey,” which he says he learned from his grandmother. It’s surprisingly wonderful. There is also a wealth of sacred music in this collection, revealing Williams to have been an excellent and heartfelt revival-style gospel singer. On some tracks his singing is reminiscent of Kentuckian singing preacher Alfred G. Karnes; there is overlap with Karnes’ discography as well, in Williams’ version of “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” The arrangement is very different from Karnes’ 1927 Victor record, but perhaps equally special.
There are four different performances, all great, of “I’ll Have a New Life,” a roiling call-and-response gospel song written by the Arkansas hymnodist Luther Presley. Each version is better than the last, but in the fourth, from the fall of 1951, Williams barks out his lines in the chorus like a manic auctioneer, and you can hear the band take inspiration from his performance as they respond, affirming and elaborating on what can only be interpreted as Williams’ religious witness. It’s an inspired performance all around.
Also affecting is “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” written by Roy Acuff. Hank introduces it as “about one of the prettiest songs I reckon anybody ever wrote.” It’s a strange song, and I’m not sure pretty is what I’d call it. The rhythm of the lyrics is awkward; they roll stumblingly, like those polyhedral dice used in certain niche boardgames. The song is about what the title describes, presumably at Normandy; and the band really feels it. They were, after all, singing only seven years after D-Day, they were young men of military age, and at least one, Don Helms, was a veteran. This is another one in which the high harmony adds an indefinable element of beauty. Rainwater provides a harmony line that the Bailes Brothers had used in a recorded 1946 live Grand Ole Opry performance (but that doesn’t appear on their Columbia record from the year before). The gentleness of Rainwater’s voice lends a mournful sweetness that the Bailes Brothers didn’t achieve, fine singers though they were. Between the last two syllables of the line “Somewhere here among the many thou-sands,” Rainwater adds a little descending bluegrass whine – and repeats it in the same spot two lines later, “That’s where I know I’ll find him rest-ing.” It’s hair-raising.
Hank Williams had an affinity for songs that Roy Acuff had either written or performed. One of the best recordings in this set is Williams’ fall 1951 performance of “Low and Lonely,” written by Fred Rose, which had been the B-side of Acuff’s popular 1942 “Night Train to Memphis” record. You can also hear his admiration for Ernest Tubb in his singing of “Seaman’s Blues,” which Tubb co-wrote and recorded; Williams hews so closely to Tubb’s 1942 version, imitating his voice pretty uncannily, that it’s more tribute than interpretation.
In a July 1951 recording, Williams gives a wonderful performance of Jimmie Davis’ “Where the Old Red River Flows.” The chorus includes a long, drawn-out yodel, which gradually becomes an imitation of a train whistle, with Rainwater’s bass laying down the crossties and Don Helms’ steel guitar ringing the crossing chimes. Unfortunately, the song also includes some racial slurs, and is rife with plantation nostalgia.
A couple of other recordings also show the kind of casual racism with which mid-century popular culture was so infused. In “Steal Away/The Funeral,” Hank – presumably in the guise of Luke the Drifter, the persona he assumed when he took a notion to record one of his often-excruciating talkies – gives a recitation of poet Will Carleton’s horribly patronizing account of overhearing the funeral of an African American child. Williams’ delivery shows that he’s moved by the tale, but Carleton’s poem has not worn well. That same fall, announcer Louie Buck gave an unctuous cameo recitation in the middle of “If I Didn’t Love You.” As Colin Escott pointed out in his notes to the Time Life 2011 release of the Mother’s Best shows, it’s an imitation of the Ink Spots’ format in which Orville “Hoppy” Jones would give a “talking bass” recitation in the middle of songs. It’s not a friendly tribute, but a blackface-stye parody, with all the attendant ugliness and aggression disguised as play. I’m glad these pieces weren’t cut from the release, though; better a true than a sanitized portrait of an icon and his cultural context.
As mentioned above, this review focuses on the audio component of Pictures from Life’s Other Side. But the book is remarkable too. It presents more than 200 pictures of Hank Williams, including many casual snapshots. (The set is billed as featuring previously unpublished images, but the book does not indicate which those are.) Of special appeal are photobooth portraits of an apparently teenaged Williams. In one set (page 13) he wears a cowboy hat and a bandanna around his neck, and someone outside the booth is making him laugh. In another set (page 19), he wears a fedora and tentatively tries out the expression of a hard-boiled gangster.
To my eye, he looks happiest and most relaxed in a commercial portrait (page 173) with Sarah Colley Cannon – in costume as Minnie Pearl – with whom, it’s noted in a caption, Williams was close friends. It’s an endearing picture because one can see unmistakable love and warmth between them. They also appear to be suppressing laughter – Sarah (who was twelve years older) more successfully than Hank. Photos from Williams’ final year (pages 216 to 262) are simply sad. He often looks bleary, drunk, or –worst – like he’s trying to cover up disorientation with excessive cheer.
The only thing I found lacking in Pictures from Life’s Other Side is a small but irksome oversight. Three snapshots (pages 69, 72, and 73) are credited simply to “Hank Thompson’s mother.” No doubt she was best known for being Hank Thompson’s mother, but her name was Ilda Wells Thompson.
Two essays appear in the book as well: an affectionate introduction by Jett Williams, Hank’s youngest daughter, who was born five days after he died; and, at the end of the book, a five-page essay by Williams biographer and country music historian Colin Escott. Escott’s piece focuses mainly on the final phase of Williams’ life and the aftermath of his death. Especially interesting and helpful, he also includes background information on the history of flour mills sponsoring radio shows. This presentation assumes that the reader already has some familiarity with Hank Williams’ story; and as the set is more extensive than a curious new listener would be likely to choose as an introduction, that’s probably a safe bet.
Hank Williams was 27 years old when most of the Mother’s Best shows were recorded, 28 in the later shows. Thirteen months after the last show, he was dead. It’s not necessary to voice here the thoughts all his fans have had, about how much he accomplished in just a few years, and about what might have been. But the intimacy and clarity of these recordings’ sound don’t only bring into focus how good he was, but, most poignantly, how young. There are a couple of instances, as he and Louie Buck (who was 40 in the first recordings here) are bantering before and after songs, when we hear Hank giggle. It’s a boy’s laugh – a quick, slightly unsure whinny. He sounds like what he was – a young person from a country town; perhaps a little daunted by the self-assured older person he’s conversing with, but doing his best not to show it. He was a grown man, of course: a husband and father, a master artist, a celebrity, a traveler of many thousands of highway miles, a person already beaten down by chronic pain and substance abuse. But he was, and he remains, so young.