Biographer Colin Escott Still Capitvated By Hank’s Songs

Juli Thanki | September 16th, 2010

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Mother’s Best Recordings, Escott wrote a hundred pages of liner notes; his writing, combined with several previously unpublished photographs from the collection of Marty Stuart, is something that Hankophiles will salivate over.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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  1. [...] favorite country writer Juli Thanki (who recently interviewed Hank biographer Colin Escott) informed me the other day that some call September 17th “Hankstitution Day,” as it is [...]
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  1. Paul W Dennis
    September 16, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Nice interview

    Escott has become the leading authority on Hank Sr – his biography of Hank Sr is a must-read, if ever there was one, although there are some other decent biographies out there.

    I hope that Time-Life, at some point, breaks the set into smaller parts as a 15 CD set is a large cash outlay for some folks and will necessarily limit the number of people who get to hear this music

  2. Barry Mazor
    September 16, 2010 at 10:14 am

    The previous human-size “Unreleased” and “Revealed” Mother’s Best Show boxes from Time-Life are likely excellent introductions, and possibly all that’s necessary to hear, for most folks–and I know that Colin would agree with that. But I could see, Paul, why you might want choices from whole show sets or to get them incrementally..

  3. luckyoldsun
    September 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I bought the “Unreleased” box and something that I found interesting was that the liner notes repeatedly reference “Jett Williams” involvement and barely mention Hank Jr. Did she somehow gain control of these recordings in a settlement?

  4. Barry Mazor
    September 16, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    Hank and Jett co-own the material, and they agreed between them to let her do more of the promotion. He’s busy!

  5. luckyoldsun
    September 17, 2010 at 8:21 am

    I do recall that Hank Jr. did not accept that “Jett” was Hank’s daughter and that she only got her share of the estate by beating him in court some years back. Since then, I have NEVER noticed them appearing together or jointly in anything public. It seems to me that he still does not accept her.

    I was just surprised when I got the “Unreleased” box that Jr. seemed to allow “Jett” to control the entire project–or at least the public face of it. And his being “busy” doesn’t explain it.

  6. Jon
    September 17, 2010 at 9:43 am

    And his being “busy” doesn’t explain it.

    I kind of want to ask what special insight you have into Hank Jr.’s life that would qualify you to opine on that, but I think I’d rather just point put that he doesn’t owe anyone any explanation at all.

  7. Barry Mazor
    September 17, 2010 at 10:10 am

    You know, there are people in this world who look at situations, patch things up and move on.

  8. luckyoldsun
    September 17, 2010 at 11:06 am

    “I kind of want to ask what special insight you have into Hank Jr.’s life that would qualify you to opine on that, but I think I’d rather just point put that he doesn’t owe anyone any explanation at all.
    You know, there are people in this world who look at situations, patch things up and move on.”

    If that’s what’s happened, I think that’s great.
    I was just a bit curious. For all his life, Jr. has been a keeper of the Hank Williams legacy. He fought hard in court against “Jett”. All of a sudden, a new Hank Williams treasure trove comes out and she seems to be running the show.

    I don’t have any special knowledge beyond what I see in public. Actually, I was hoping that someone with more knowledge might comment. I don’t know why this should make people touchy.

  9. Barry Mazor
    September 17, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I’ve interviewed Hank Jr and his sister Lycretia, (tho never Jett, so far) on family matters and carrying the “family traditton” forward, and also discussed these matters with Colin Escott, a friend, for publication..

    FYI on handling, from the original Mother’s Best reissue press release:

    “When I heard about the Mother’s Best shows, I couldn’t believe there was more,” exclaims Hank Williams, Jr. “And when I heard that these recordings increased the amount of daddy’s music by fifty percent, man, talk about a grand slam. Hearing him sing songs like The Blind Child’s Prayer and On Top Of Old Smoky, and you realize he was listening to country music, soaking it up, back in the 1930’s. But the most special songs to me are where daddy sings with mother on those old Gospel songs like, Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies. There’s something special about those recordings.”

    “This has truly been my labor of love for me. It’s a mission to share the man I now know as my father with a world who is seeing him, perhaps for the first time, as the multi-talented, multi-faceted genius he was,” says Jett Williams. “With this project, you feel like a privileged outsider eavesdropping from a corner of the studio on a slice of Americana. This is a rare and incredible snapshot in time – getting to witness Hank’s genius at work and play.”

    Jett’s referring to her more active participation in the production.

    And this project is a moneymaker for all concerned, btw.

  10. Brady Vercher
    September 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    We have an upcoming interview with Jett in which Ken asked her about her relationship with Hank Jr. Look for that around the beginning of next week.

  11. SHORESLADY
    September 22, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    I don’t think LuckyOldSun is out of line with these questions about the Williams family, artists and celebrities who, like it or not, are subject to the scrunity of fans, the media, and scholars. The family doesn’t owe us any answers but those of us who’ve followed their paths for decades are inclined toward informed questions about topics reflected in their own music. It’s not like we’re asking about Hank’s shoe size.

  12. Jon
    September 22, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Luckyoldsun asked a question about why Jett was more involved in the production of this set than Hank Jr. Barry answered the question. Luckyold sun wasn’t happy with the answer. Where’s the “informed question” here? Where’s the topic reflected in Hank Jr.’s music?

  13. SHORESLADY
    November 18, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Can’t argue with that, there’s no line reference in Hank’s music to support contemporary interest in the Estate. But the Hank williams Phenomemon encompasses all dynamics affecting whether and how his work is made available to us. So there’s reasonable curiosity about how Hank’s decendents handle their legacy.

    I gotta say, this is the most contentious forum I’ve experienced in the limited range of country music websites and blogs. Well-informed, sure but a person’s gotta tread easy ’round these parts.

  14. Damien
    January 1, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I got turned on to Hank Williams by my Dad. He would always play his music when we went for cruises in our old Mercury. When he sang you can tell it came from his soul. I think a lot of country singers get their style from Hank. I can’t wait to get my hands on The Complete Mothers Best Recordings it sure to be a good listen.

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