Album box-set: Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings (TimeLife)
By 1951, Hank Williams had become the biggest star in country music, a mainstay of the Grand Ole Opry's Saturday night radio shows, an in-demand live performer, and an increasingly familiar guest on television shows.
Having come from penurious roots, however, Hank was loath to turn down any offer of paying work, and eagerly agreed to provide a daily spot on radio shows sponsored by a flour-milling company called Mother's Best, despite having embarked on the unending tour schedule that would ultimately kill him before he was 30.
To meet his commitments to Mother's Best, Williams pre-recorded shows to 16in acetate discs, which would be broadcast at 7.15am every day, as if Hank were there in the studio, rather than out on the road. After his death, the acetates languished at the radio station until someone decided to purge the sound archive of unusable material: the discs were headed for a dumpster before a quick-witted country fan salvaged them.
To get some idea of how important a trove this is, it's like Dylan's Basement Tapes multiplied many times over: these are effectively new tracks by arguably America's greatest ever songwriter, the undisputed poet laureate of the poor white underclass. Despite the slight hiss caused by a cutting-lathe problem, the first performance of the classic "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" has an immediacy and energy that is thrilling, and the pristine quality achieved elsewhere leaves one giddy: it's as if Williams is there in the room with you. I defy anyone to hear this set's "Cool Water" and not feel chills up their spine. Likewise, "Cold, Cold Heart" receives a brittle accompaniment that brings home the personal bitterness in which the song was rooted.
Elsewhere, the nosey-parker classic "Mind Your Own Business" features a dubious couplet not included in the "official" version, "If I get my head beat black and blue / That's my wife, and my stove wood, too", while several other songs profit from the high mountain harmonies of Don Helms and Cedric Rainwater of Williams's Drifting Cowboys backing band.
The bulk of the performances feature early gospel material, standards like "On Top of Old Smoky", and songs by contemporaries such as Fred Rose, Jim Anglin, Bob Nolan and The Bailes Brothers; but there's also a smattering of previously unreleased Williams originals such as "If I Didn't Love You" and "California Zephyr". None are likely to supplant "Hey Good Lookin'", "Jambalaya", "I Saw the Light" or "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in the pantheon of American song, but even Hank's throwaways are worth hearing, especially with such clarity.
Pick of the Album: 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)', 'Cool Water', 'Hey Good Lookin'', 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry', 'Cold, Cold Heart'