Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Back in 1991, when CDs had pretty much taken over the market, CBS released a series of "Columbia Country Classics" issues which included five volumes chronicling the evolution of Country Music, plus individual collections by some of the big names in Columbia's catalog (Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Ray Price, Marty Robbins, etc.). While most of these issues received wide circulation, the present collection seems to have been lost in the shuffle (I picked up my copy in a discount bin not much more than a year after its release). Perhaps the problem was that people mistook it for a collection of Hank Williams' recordings - it is not, nor is it a crass attempt to market cover versions as originals. "Hank Williams Songbook" is a fascinating collection of twenty recording presented in chronological order; the first fifteen tracks are songs of Hank's recorded by his contemporaries during his lifetime, the last five are covers by other artists made in the seven years after his death.
An outline of the contents is given in the liner notes:

Has anyone so dominated Country music from an early grave as Hank Williams? Even today, he is the benchmark by which success in the field is measured. Seemingly every aspect of his professional and private life has been dissected, like the Russians once dissected Lenin’s brain, trying to analyze the magic stew of ingredients that made him special. If one sidebar to Hank’s career remains murky, it’s his prolificacy as a custom songwriter. This collection goes a great distance toward addressing that shortfall. The first fourteen songs were mostly written by him for other artists while he was alive; the remainder are among the first attempts to reinterpret his legacy after his death.
When Hank came to Nashville in 1946 it was to audition as a songwriter Acuff-Rose Music. His first customer was Molly O’Day. Bern Lois LaVerne Williamson in Pike County, Kentucky, she re-christened herself Molly O’Day in 1942, and sang in the full-throated mountain style. The first Hank Williams song she cut, “When God Comes And Gathers His Jewels,” was one that Hank himself had five days earlier
at his first session. There would be four others, including “On The Evening Train,” the only song on which Hank’s wife, Audrey, is listed as co-composer, and “I Don’t Care If Tomorrow Never Comes,” another song that Hank recorded for Sterling at his second session.
 Hank’s best-known hymn was probably “I Saw The Light.” His version was cut in April 1947, but not released until September the following year. By then, Roy Acuff, one of the partners in Acuff-Rose, had recorded and released it. The song, based on Albert Brumley’s “He Set Me Free,” was as tailor-made for Acuff as it was for Williams. Acuff had been one of Hank’s heroes during the lean years, and it must have represented deep personal gratification when he cut the song.
Curley Williams (no relation to Hank, incidentally) was born in south Georgia; his given name was Doc. He was the seventh child, and, according to family lore, the seventh child would be a doctor; instead, he was a fiddle player. He and Hank shared the stage at the Louisiana Hayride where Hank jump-started his career in 1948. Hank later recorded Curley’s song “Half As Much,” and Curley cut three songs that he and Hank wrote jointly.
Curley rarely took the lead vocals; on “No, Not Now” we hear Hayride stalwart Jack Ford with Curley’s daughter, Georgia Ann. We do hear Curley on “Honey Do You Love Me, Huh?,” though, as well as his regular lead vocalist, Boots Harris, and Georgia Ann. The Peach Pickers’ bass player Joe Gibson took the lead on “When You’re Tired Of Breaking Others Hearts.”
Carl Smith became one of the best-selling country artists of the ‘50s, but in January 1951, when he cut Hank’s “There’s Nothing As Sweet As My Baby,” he had yet to see his first hit. Smith was born in Roy Acuff’s hometown, Maynardsville, Tennessee, and probably met Hank when he was his guest on WSM’s Duck Head Overalls show in 1950. By January 1951, both artists had regular timeslots on WSM as well as the Opry. Hank gave Carl “There’s Nothing As Sweet As My Baby,” which he later contended he wrote for his son, Hank Jr. If so, that may account for its nursery rhyme quality. Smith placed it on the flip side of the record that turned out to be his breakthrough, “Let’s Live A Little.”
Another struggling singer who received Hank Williams’ help at a critical juncture in his career was Ray Price. Raised in Dallas, Price had moved to Nashville to join WSM shortly before Audrey Williams kicked Hank out of the house. Hank moved in with Price for a while, and gave the young singer three of his finest songs, telling him “what you need little buddy is a hit record to get you started.” None of them was that elusive first hit, but, after Williams returned to Shreveport in late ‘52, Price took over his band, the Drifting Cowboys, for a couple of years.
Quite how George Morgan came to record “A Stranger In The Night” is something of a mystery. Morgan wasn’t one of Williams’ favorite acts, although they shared the Opry stage. The song, surely one of the little-known gems in Williams’ catalog, probably devolved to George because the co-writer was George’s brother, Bill Morgan.
Jimmy Dickens was another Opry regular; he and Hank were booking out together on Opry touring packages when Dickens cut “I Wish You Didn’t Love Me So Much.” It was a barbed song laced with Hank’s grim humor that he re-cast as a talking blues under the title “Please Make Up Your Mind” in July 1952. His version appeared under the disguise of Luke the Drifter; Dickens’ version wasn’t released at the time— except, unaccountably, in Canada.
Now we move on to the artists who reinterpreted the Hank Williams songbook after his death. Anita Carter, one the daughters of Mother Maybelle Carter, was still working wish her mother and sisters when they joined Columbia in 1953. Hank’s original of ”There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” was buried on the flipside of “Mind Your Own Business.” Columbia framed Anita’s version with a string section, surely one of the first experiments in blending hillbilly instrumentation with strings.
Marty Robbins’ first number one hit, “I’ll Go On Alone,” shared the top slot with the last record that Hank Williams released during his lifetime, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.” Marty revived “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” in September 1955, when some of the twitchy energy of rockabilly was creeping into country music. In January 1957, he cut his first 12-inch album (in a shade under two hours!); among the songs was a bristling revival of “Moanin’ The Blues.”
Marijohn Wilkin is best known us a songwriter (“Long Black Veil” etc.), but in 1960 she still held fast to the notion of making it as a singer. Her reading of “Cold, Cold Heart” owns more to Tony Bennett’s recording of the song than Hank’s original.
We close with Johnny Cash, an artist whose stunning originality and top rank songwriting skills made him the first serious challenger for Williams’ crown. In February 1960, Cash was recording some of his favorite hits by others for a collection called ‘Now, There Was A Song,”al so notable as the first occasion on which he employed standard country instrumentation. Cash’s inevitable nod to Hank Williams was “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a song that echoed the feel he strove for in his own writing.
Those who knew him say Hank Williams was resolute about keeping what he considered his best material for himself, but what we find in his custom-written songs are not so much rejects as songs that didn’t fit his needs at the time. As an added fillip, there are five songs here that haven’t even surfaced in demo form by Hank. They highlight a collection that illuminates one more corner of Hank Williams’ brief, incendiary career.
July 1991


1. Molly O'Day & The Cumberland Mountain Folks-When God Comes And Gather His Jewels
2. Molly O'Day & The Cumberland Mountain Folks-On The Evening Train
3. Roy Acuff & His Smokey Mountain Boys-I Saw The Light
4. Molly O'Day & The Cumberland Mountain Folks-I Don't Care If Tomorrow Never Comes
5. Curley Williams & His Georgia Peach Pickers-No, Not Now
6. Carl Smith-There's Nothing As Sweet As My Baby
7. Curley Williams & His Georgia Peach Pickers-Honey Do You Love Me, Huh
8. George Morgan-A Stranger In The Night
9. Carl Smith-Me And My Broken Heart
10. Ray Price-Weary Blues From Waiting
11. "Little" Jimmy Dickens-I Wish You Didn't Love Me So Much
12. Ray Price-I Lost The Only Love I Knew
13. Curley Williams & His Georgia Peach Pickers-When You're Tired Of Breaking Others Hearts
14. Ray Price-I Can't Escape From You
15. Anita Carter-There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight
16. Marty Robbins-Long Gone Lonesome Blues
17. "Little" Jimmy Dickens-I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)
18. Marty Robbins-Moanin' The Blues
19. Marijohn Wilkin & The Jacks-Cold Cold Heart
20. Johnny Cash-I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry


iggy said...

Wonderful music with superb informational accompaniment. Thanks so very much, Lefty. You are a country music treasure, all by yourself. Very best to you.


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KG said...

Hi Lefty,

Any chance for a new link for this one? Looks like the perfect soundtrack for a midwinter road trip.