Hank Williams is back on the air.
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By COLIN FLEMING
Of all of the giants of American popular music, there is perhaps no artist who had as brief a recording presence as Hank Williams, a prime mover in several genres who did all of his prime moving between 1946 and 1952.
Country music tends to be lampooned today as the fare of NASCAR fans and inebriated college girls, and when people hear the name Hank Williams they’re apt to think of Hank Williams Jr. and that Monday Night Football theme song that has a way of boring into your skull like some hideous creature from an H. P. Lovecraft story.
But Hank Williams Sr. (1923-53) was the real deal in a way that few American musical pioneers—Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters—have ever been. His music wasn’t so much straight-up country music as a sophisticated amalgam of what was, or would become, folk, rockabilly, gospel, blues, and rock ’n’ roll. Williams’s chief attribute may well have been his ability to be both of the people—a stalwart of the folk and country pride—and a sophisticated musical performer whose work had legitimate avant-garde cachet if you stopped to listen hard enough.
Williams also had a predilection for sounding ancient, as if he’d tapped into the Old Testament and found a way to transport his listeners back to a dusty, predawn time in our civilization. Yet he was modern enough that today’s listeners might be perplexed by the immediacy and everyday familiarity of his music, now 75 years old.
Consider, then, this delight of a discovery: four Hank Williams radio programs from 1950, which no one has heard since they aired. They are a legitimate boost to a catalogue whose largesse was substantial enough to assume it couldn’t be significantly boosted. And yet, here’s a whole other side to the man who might be the closest thing we have ever had to a pied piper, given how many people followed his example and sometimes crafted examples of their own.
The programs are live in the sense that everything was done in one take, cut as though it were a concert setting; but the music was actually recorded at Nashville’s Castle Recording Laboratories, in 15-minute blocks sponsored by Naughton Farms, one of the country’s largest plant nurseries. Williams would sing as the band (not his regular Drifting Cowboys) accompanied his deep-delving efforts, and in between songs a pitchman would try to hook you up with “deep-rooted” rosebushes. Folksy in the extreme.
Williams, however, understood the relationship between hawking and music, and his best songs, like many of our best stories, films, and records, try to sell his audience on a kind of experience—to beckon, like a sales pitch.
The four surviving programs here take the same form: We have a jingle from the “Garden Spot”—the bellwether name for the series—followed by an up-tempo piece, a thought-provoker (“Lovesick Blues” takes up both posts), a fast-tempo fiddle interlude, a song to depress you, and then a romp through “Oh! Susanna” at a pace straight out of an old cartoon. Williams is at once bashful—he chides two of his own songs, “Mind Your Own Business” and “I’ll Be a Bachelor ’Til I Die” as novelty numbers, though they’re anything but—and entirely prepossessing and confident.
The ad hoc band features more steel guitar than the Drifting Cowboys ever did, and the wrinkle is a pleasing one, especially on the two versions of “Lovesick Blues,” with the guitar providing a luxuriant frame that directs our attention inward to the rich, expressive picture that comes with Williams’s vocals. It makes one wonder what would prompt a man to think it best to sing this way, with those crazy leaps and dips and the quasi-falsetto that has a cowboy’s choke near the end of it.
Jimmie Rodgers was the antecedent here, but Williams took country and western singing out to new territories. For all of his aw-shucks-it’s-just-me commentary, it is plain that Williams knew, as any great storyteller does, that he had his listeners fully in his charge.
There may be no more risibly depressing song in the country and western catalogue than “I’ve Just Told Mama Goodbye,” a piece of corn which finds Mother expiring on Mother’s Day before taking up residence, as a flower, in God’s bouquet. It puts one in mind of those car crash songs from the late 1950s—all the rage, momentarily, on the pop charts—but what’s interesting here is that Williams transforms such material into something like an upbeat version of a work song. The subject matter isn’t especially relevant; what matters is the idea of taking a blue feeling and spinning it into something brighter. Maybe your boss just took it out on you, or your kid is sick. You listen and think: So that’s how you do it. Maximum connection, and a very subtle, even alchemical, taking-over.
Colin Fleming is the author of Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.
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