Biographer Colin Escott Still Capitvated By Hank’s Songs
For Hank Williams fans, Christmas is just around the corner—September 28, to be exact. That’s when the Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! (a 15-CD, 1-DVD box set) is officially released. Sure, the bootleg versions of those early ’50s morning radio shows on WSM have been floating around the internet for some time, but on this collection they’ve been cleaned up and placed in some really cool packaging. Unlike many other Time Life collections, you won’t be seeing any late night infomercials for this set; the company is selling it directly through their site, something that’s a new venture for them.
Over the next week or so, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Mother’s Best shows. Where else could we start except Colin Escott? The man has written the definitive biography of Williams in addition to numerous liner notes and several other projects that focus on country music and the early days of rock ‘n’ roll; I’d say that he’s probably the world’s foremost Hank Williams expert. For the Complete Mother’s Best Recordings, Escott wrote a hundred pages of liner notes; his writing, combined with several previously unpublished photographs from the collection of Marty Stuart, is something that Hankophiles will salivate over.
I had the chance to briefly chat with Escott about Hank Williams, the biography (essential reading for anyone who likes country music and good books), and the Mother’s Best radio shows.
What initially drew you to country music and Hank Williams?
When I was growing up in England in the ’50s and ’60s, we got very little country music over there and it was mostly Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman. When I heard Hank, I didn’t really think of him as a country singer at all because he sounded so completely different from those two; I thought of him more as a blues singer. I liked the blues and I liked Hank Williams.
Do you remember how old you were when you first heard Hank?
13 or 14.
What was the research process like for both the biography and the Mother’s Best sets?
I worked for Polygram records back in the ’70s and we had the Hank Williams catalog there. I’d been after the guys to do something comprehensive because there were just a few greatest hits packages floating around. They let me do a set of Hank double albums that came out in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I started accumulating information on Hank and it occurred to me that a lot of the old guys that knew Hank weren’t getting any younger and they were dying off. It seemed to me that no one had done a really good comprehensive biography of Hank. So I just slowly started pulling together the information to write one, and all the while I kept working on the catalog for Polygram.
I guess we knew about the Mother’s Best Recordings in the 1980s, but they were trapped in this legal hell for 25 years, I guess. As soon as they were freed up and it was announced that sole ownership had been given to the estate, I was working for Time Life and alerted them. The Vice President of Retail, Mike Jason, came to Nashville and we went out to see Jett Williams. Jett played us some of the recordings and we just knew we had to have them for Time Life and we did a deal. The Country Music Hall of Fame had copied the shows to tape back in 1981 so we did another deal with the Hall of Fame to get that audio. Then we ran it through new digital processing which can really eliminate an amazing amount of noise while leaving the sound really crisp.
I really think that these shows sound better than Hank’s studio recordings because they were done direct-to-disc and then were transferred at the Hall of Fame. They really hadn’t been played that often. You can hear chest tones in the way Hank sings that you never could hear on the studio recordings. You can pick up little things in the background like the guys flicking cigarette lighters when somebody’s doing the commercials and there’s really a lot of presence there.
When you were researching, did you learn anything unexpected about Hank?
It was just like an accumulation of small details about Hank Williams that kind of changed him from being the sort of mythological figure in my mind to someone who pulled his boots on one at a time. The main thing that impressed itself upon me was the affection in which Hank was held by those who worked with him. Everyone admitted that he could be troublesome, and his problems with the bottle are pretty well documented, but there was just an enormous affection that all the guys who worked with him had.
Why do you think Hank has remained such a central figure in the country music consciousness while many of his contemporaries have faded away?
It seems like the dark stuff endures, doesn’t it? If you listen to pop music from the early ’50s, Perry Como’s records like “Hoop-Dee-Doo” and so on just sound kind of over-ornamented, whereas Frank Sinatra’s sort of dark soliloquies still speak to us. I guess the same applies to country music. There’s something viscerally real about the way Hank Williams wrote and sung and to those of us who never knew him or saw him—which is probably 95% or more of the people who buy his records these days—it still reaches through the years and grabs you. You really feel like he’s reaching out to you.
The release of the Mother’s Best shows is increasing the body of Hank’s recorded work substantially. How do you think that this is going to affect his legacy and the way we remember him?
It can only enhance it. Most of the songs that were recorded for MGM during his lifetime were songs that came from mostly him. They were songs that were then current in 1947, ’48, ’50, ’51, ’52. But on those Mother’s Best shows, you get to hear the music that Hank Williams really loved. You get songs like “The Blind Child’s Prayer,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Gene Autry songs and folk ballads and old hymns…you really get a sense for the music that Hank Williams loved. He played songs by other artists that he was drawn to for one reason or another.
I hear you’re involved with an unnamed Hank Williams movie project that’s in the works. Can you give us some info on that?
We all hope to see it materialize. Apparently the script is being written now and I don’t think there’s a title and I don’t think any stars have become affiliated with it that I know of; it’d probably be better to check with Jett Williams on that. Hank’s life certainly lends itself to being made into a movie.
There’s certainly a bad one out there.
For there to only be one movie about Hank Williams and for it to be that one…it does Hank’s legacy a disservice, let’s put it that way.
Do you have a favorite Hank Williams song, or one that’s spoken to you over the years?
The fabulously gloomy Hank Williams songs, like “The Angel of Death” “House of Gold,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Weary Blues from Waiting.” I find those performances just draw me in every time. They never fail to work for me.
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