Album Review: Hank Williams Sr. – The Unreleased Recordings
The 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.
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