Hank Williams, Hank Williams: The Legend Begins

Written by December 1st, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Hank Williams: The Legend Begins
Hank Williams
(Time/Life)
Rating: ★★★★☆

On Jan. 1, Hank Williams will have been dead for 59 years — double the length of his abbreviated life. Yet the man considered the leading light of country music is still teaching us, and his mournful, lonesome voice still moves us. And somehow, there are still artifacts to mine from his aural legacy. “Hank Williams: The Legend Begins,” contains four previously unheard recordings of “Freight Train Blues,” “New San Antonio Rose,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Greenback Dollar,” plus his earliest recordings — wobbly, scratchy versions of “Fan It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” They sound even older than their 73 years, and the four tracks from a 1940 acetate sound almost as ancient as wax tracks; on “Greenback Dollar,” you can actually hear the needle bouncing along as the gramophone turntable spins. Whether they add much to his canon is debatable, but the accompanying two discs of this three-CD set contain several of his “Health and Happiness Show” radio broadcasts; they’re filled with the folksy, homey between-song chatter that no doubt further endeared “the singing sensation of the nation” to his audiences. Fiddler Jerry Rivers and Hank’s wife, Audrey, also contribute tunes, giving the proceedings a “Louisiana Hayride” feel. (Though she gets some cute material, i.e., “I’m Telling You,” it’s clear from these recordings why her career never took off.)

Introduced at one point as “the ol’ lovesick blues boy,” Hank prefaces a rendition of “Lovesick Blues” with “There’s a lot of suffering in this song. I hope you never do have to go through nothin’ like this.” Then, referring to the band, he adds with a laugh, “We have to do it quite often.” And when he sings, with that high, hankerin’ wail in his voice, you can hear what everyone from Buddy Holly to countless country artists picked up on.

So many of the songs included here have taken on greater meaning over the years as well. “Mansion on the Hill” became the title of a Springsteen song and a book; “Lost Highway” is a record label. But the song that really sounds like quintessential Hank, at least on this collection, is “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight.”

It’s somehow appropriate, considering that Hank Williams could be held responsible for the rivers of tears that have filled country music’s canon ever since.

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