Album Review: Hank Williams Sr. – The Unreleased Recordings

Juli Thanki | November 19th, 2008

Hank Williams - The Unreleased RecordingsThe fifteen-disc bootleg of the so-called “Mother’s Best Flour Show” recordings has been floating around the internet for nearly a decade now, while numerous lawsuits were duked out by Hank Jr. and his half-sister Jett (the daughter Hank Sr. never knew) as the Williams estate tried to establish sole ownership of the recordings. Although the bootleg collection has a far greater quantity—if not quality—of songs, it’s hard to go wrong with this three disc set, which contains 54 of the 143 songs that Time Life plans to release in the next three years.

The Mother’s Best recordings were a series of approximately seventy radio shows, prerecorded in 1951 for early morning radio play on WSM 650. According to Colin Escott, Williams’ most in-depth biographer, in addition to the intro singing of “Lovesick Blues,” each fifteen-minute show included a secular song, a gospel number, an instrumental, and two pitches for Mother’s Best flour done by WSM announcer Louie Buck. The shows themselves were recorded on notoriously fragile acetate discs, but most—if not all—of them survived after being rescued from the trash by a WSM employee in 1979.

Hearing Williams sing all of his hits “live on the radio” is wonderful, but the real gems in this collection are the songs which he never officially recorded for release. All in all, the entirety of the Mother’s Best recordings contain about forty songs that aren’t present on any of Hank’s official releases, and The Unreleased Recordings has chosen a substantial selection of some of the most powerful of these songs.

Disc One kicks off with a mournful cover of Roy Acuff’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” while classic gospel songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” the five and a half minute epic “I Dreamed That Great Judgment Morning,” and “Softly and Tenderly” are also performed with enough fervor to make the hair on your arms stand up. Traditional folk song “On Top of Old Smoky,” at that time on the charts thanks to the Weavers, also gets the Williams treatment as he states he learned the song from his grandmother.

There are also moments where, despite his (deserved) image as a belligerent drunk, Williams seems relaxed and informal, even downright folksy, a 27 year old good Southern boy at the height of his fame. Listening to him cheerfully banter with Louie Buck, it’s hard to imagine the downward slide awaiting ol’ Hank: his dismissal from the Opry, a failed marriage, and finally, his descent into alcoholism resulting in his death fewer than two years later.

While The Unreleased Recordings is a fantastic box set, there are a few things that could have been improved to give this collection some more punch. Each show included an intro as well as multiple pitches for Mother’s Best Flour, and for the country music history buffs among us, it would have been nice to hear some of these moments–or even a show in its entirety–so that listeners could get the chance to hear some amazing instrumental numbers courtesy of the Drifting Cowboys.

The one advantage these edited recordings have over the originals, however, is the absence of Williams’ off-key wife Audrey–but even her presence would be welcomed by those who have an interest in the history of country music and the tumultuous personal life of its patron saint.

Still, despite these shortcomings, The Unreleased Recordings remains one of the best country box sets to ever be released, and serves as a great companion to the nine disc The Complete Hank Williams. The liner notes alone, written by Escott, are a fascinating look at Williams’ storied rise and fall.

5 Stars

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  1. Drew
    November 19, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Well said, I totally agree about the part that it’s hard to imagine all of Hank’s miseries when he’s cheerfully chatting it up… and that’s definitely one of the gems in this collection. Like his daughter Jett said upon the release, few were able to get a real idea of what Hank was like as a person, aside from his writing and performing… but these new songs and the banter in between give a good sense of just his overall persona and the joy that comes from his work. 5 stars for sure, and like you said, is a perfect accompaniment to the 9-disc Complete recordings.

  2. Matt C.
    November 19, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    It’s great that this stuff is getting out there, though I imagine that it makes all those who bought The Complete Hank Williams feel rather cheated.

    On a somewhat related note, I think that record companies often underestimate the demand for “complete” collections of the recordings of deceased artists, and when they do hit the market, they’re overpriced. I’d like the challenge the folks over at WSM to scour their vaults and team up with a record company to offer affordable “complete” collections of some of the recently deceased country music legends.

  3. Patrick
    November 19, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Readers Digest has a FOUR disc set that includes several of the shows in their entirety.

  4. Juli
    November 19, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Matt C., I too would love to hear what else WSM has in their vaults…some vintage Porter Wagoner or Minnie Pearl would be amazing. Of course, if the Mother’s Best shows were rescued from the trashcan, God only knows what gems didn’t get salvaged and are now lost for good.

  5. C. Eric Banister
    November 20, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Somebody correct me if I am wrong, because I don’t have the Unreleased set yet, but none of these recordings are on the Complete Hank set, so I don’t think anyone would have a reason to feel cheated. The Complete set was released ten years ago(!) when these were tied up in litigation.

    As to what else WSM has in the vault, let me recommend some releases that fly very far under radar for most people. In 2006 and 2007 there were a total of 12 (I don’t have them next to me, but I think that’s right) discs released only at Cracker Barrel that were Grand Ole Opry themed. The series was titled “Legends of the Grand Ole Opry and each disc had its own theme (“Top Hits” or “Women of Country”) and were recordings taken mainly from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Mostly the songs include the hits that you would expect, but many of them include the artists introduction and maybe a few words by them. I highly recommend the series to fans of the classics, although you might have to do some ebay digging to find them.

    Time-Life, who released the new Hank set, picked up the “Legends of the Grand Ole Opry” moniker and have released 4 discs in the series: Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson. They include performances from the Opry, mainly from the ’60s. I have the Wagoner and Nelson discs and they are very good. They are pretty hard to find (Amazon lists all but the Robbins one), but worth the hunt.

  6. Baron Lane
    December 2, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Did you guys bring in Thanki to cover only the good country music? ;)

  7. Hkinsey3
    December 5, 2008 at 4:36 am

    Wow!! Just found these gems and was absolutely blown away by the quality and content. Songs of the day never recorded in the studio by Hank and gospel songs new to his repertoire. Can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the collection. Would be nice if Time-Life would at least release a list of the gems they have yet to make available. Christmas came early this year :-)

  8. Occasional Hope
    December 6, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I got this today, and it really is a fantastically well-put-together set. Great music and very good packaging. I particularly like the illustrations from the original sheet music of some of the songs. This is probably the bargain of the year. Great review, too.

    Personally I’m all too grateful for the absence of Audrey.

  9. William Pinkston
    October 18, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    please do not write things about Hank SR HE WAS NOT A DRUNK HE HAD A HORRIBLE BACK PROBLEM THE DOCTORS TRIED TO FUSE IT THE DISC. IN FACT THE SHOWS HE MISSED WAS THE BACK PROBLEM CHECK YOUR FACTS. IT EASY TO BLAME DRINKING FOR ALL OF HIS PROBLEMS. HE HAD A PERFECT VOICE HE WAS THE GREATEST SINGER THAT EVER LIVED.AUDREY VERFIED THIS ON TAPE AND SO DID BILLIE JEAN.

  10. Chris N.
    October 19, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Also, KURT COBAIN WAS NOT A HEROIN ADDICT HE HAD A HORRIBLE STOMACH PROBLEM HE WAS THE SECOND GREATEST SINGER THAT EVER LIVED COURTNEY LOVE VERFIED THIS ON TAPE.

  11. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Actually Kurt Cobain likely died because of the problem he was using heroin to medicate.

  12. Juli
    October 19, 2009 at 10:08 am

    The gunshot wound to the face probably didn’t help much either.

  13. Steve M.
    October 19, 2009 at 10:30 am

    If you were married to Courtney Love, you too would blow off your own face.

  14. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Courtney Love in the 90’s was kind of cool, because the 90’s made everything better.

  15. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 10:44 am

    But there is the ultimate game of Death Is Not An Option:
    Courtney Love or Audrey Williams

  16. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Now I am going to have Violet running through my head all day.

  17. Steve M.
    October 19, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Easy winner-Courtney. She would have driven Frances of Assisi to suicide, let alone a depressive drug addict like Kurt Corbain. God help her kid.

  18. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Yeah, but Audrey not only drove her husband to drink, she did the same thing with her son.

  19. Steve M.
    October 19, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Stormy, lets wait to see what happens to the Corbain kid. There could be a tower and a rifle in his future.

  20. stormy
    October 19, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Francis Bean is a girl. And she seemed to be level headed when she tweeted that Ali Lohan needed to develop a skill and not piggyback on her sister’s fame.

  21. Steve M.
    October 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Stormy-you sure know a lot of obscure crap. You are rapidly becoming my hero.

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