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Nashville Scene Hankerin'

A staggering new box set celebrates Hank Williams

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  We no longer idealize our celebrities; we search out their sins," John Updike recently wrote. But with Hank Williams, we didn't need to search for his sins. His songs laid them out for us, inviting us to share his joy and his pain. We partied boisterously along with him as he sang of honky tonkin' and settin' the woods on fire, we wallowed in his guilt as he told us he was so lonesome he could cry, and we shuddered as he mournfully wailed that he'd never get out of this world alive.

As plainly and as viscerally as any American songwriter, Hank Williams let us know how it felt to be fully alive and what it was like to struggle with life's biggest issues, such as love, faith, and impending death. Through his words and the way he expressed them, we heard life's exhilarating highs as well as its torturous lows. And because he so plainly and viscerally let us know what it was like to be him, he helped us know more about ourselves.

But Williams, who would have been three-quarters of a century old on Sept. 17, was of a different time. He figured his songs told us as much, if not more, than anyone needed to know about his life offstage. What could a scandal sheet say that wasn't already there in "Move It on Over"? So when he sang "Mind Your Own Business," he meant it. That wouldn't be enough today.

When the specter of Hank Williams arises, we are as likely to think about his myth as his music. Images of his life--fast living, hard drinking, young death--dominate discussions of him. We speak of his wildness, his wives, his famous son, his illegitimate daughter. In photographs, we view his gaunt figure, alternately pictured as defiant or broken. And, ultimately, we envision a slump of bones and flesh expired in the backseat of a Cadillac, the world's most famous country singer dying as a stranger drove him to another show, another adoring audience, another night of exhilarating highs and torturous lows.

However, it was Williams' songs that initially drew our attention, and his songs are why we should still care deeply about the man. That's the abiding legacy he left us. And that's the legacy that receives such lofty and loving treatment in The Complete Hank Williams, an expansive 10-disc, 225-song set released to commemorate his 75th birthday. Every bit as glorious as it should be, the box set, upon its issuance, has immediately become a landmark moment in country music history as well as a rare, watershed point in how Nashville treats the music of the most important figures of its past.

Only rarely has Music City honored its pioneering figures with lavish retrospectives--praiseworthy career surveys of luminaries like Bill Monroe and Roger Miller have been the exception rather than the rule. It certainly befits Williams' artistic stature that he has become crowned with the most ambitious box set any American company has ever bestowed upon a country music artist.

Moreover, the box set is a triumph on every level--the sound, sequencing, graphics, session notes and introductory essay are all outstanding. Unlike most music sold today, this package has been put together for the ages rather than for a fast buck.

"I think this box set fully answers a couple of essential questions: Who is this guy, and why do we care?" says Kyle Young, executive director of the Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame. The CMF collaborated with Mercury Records to create the collection, and it took Mercury's financial resources and the Foundation's historical collateral to create such a monumental offering. Luke Lewis, head of Mercury's Nashville office, is credited as executive producer, and he says the set will stand as a capping career achievement for him. "Having my name with that of Hank Williams on such a classy set, that's the highpoint of my 30 years in the music industry, and it always will be," Lewis says.

Lewis allowed a staff member, Kira Florita, to spend the bulk of two years working on this one project--an unusual move for a record company, especially for a collection likely to sell in the tens of thousands rather than in the millions. Florita coproduced the box set with author and music historian Colin Escott.

By now, more than 35 years after Williams' death, fans might think everything available by Williams had been released. After all, of the 16 or so CDs of his music currently available, there's an album called Rare Demos: First to Last and a two-CD collection culled from live radio performances. When the project was begun, Florita and Escott hoped to locate at least 15 performances previously unheard by the public. In the end, however, they came up with a whopping 53 new performances.

Most of them are of familiar songs presented in a different setting, such as live versions from old radio broadcasts or solo versions of songs cut as songwriting or recording demos. However, there are 13 songs--mostly gospel tunes and covers of other country hits--that hadn't been released in any form by Williams prior to the box set's release.

Moreover, most of his best-known songs are featured in demo form, in the original studio version, and in a live setting. In that sense, the 10 CDs truly are, as named, the complete catalog of available Hank Williams performances. Although, Florita notes, "We drew the line on adding an endless number of live versions of the same songs."

Besides the primary glory of its 225 tracks, its two booklets feature 150 written pages and 120 photographs, many of them rare or never previously published. The principal essay is by Daniel Cooper, who manages to provide fresh insights on one of the most studied figures in American music history. Equally compelling are the session notes, written by Escott with research assistance from the CMF's Bob Pinson. It's in the richly detailed session notes that we see a fleshed-out version of Williams the artist in a way that nothing other than his music has hitherto provided.

Escott details how songs like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Why Don't You Love Me" and "A House Without Love" directly reflected the conditions of Williams' stormy marriage to Audrey Williams. As for long-held suspicions that Williams was little more than a pawn for the songwriting and production genius of Fred Rose, there's plenty of proof in the demos and in the session notes indicating that Williams guided his own fate. Rose surely assisted in smoothing over rough spots in some cases, but at times Williams also fought to leave the rough spots intact. For instance, producer Rose didn't want Williams to cut "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It," one of the singer's most colorful blasts of honky-tonk rowdiness. Williams defied him and cut it anyway, and it now makes up one of the singer's greatest singles, coupled with its B-side, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." As Escott writes, "If Rose needed proof that Hank knew something he didn't, it came when 'My Bucket's Got a Hole in It' peaked at No. 2 on the hillbilly charts."

In a quote included in the CD booklet, Waylon Jennings says, "There's something romantic about a crazy man singing his songs." Of course, Williams was much more than crazy: He owned an unexplainable talent for expressing the toil and turmoil of the human experience as well as the exuberance of those flashes of joy when cares melt or when hope springs eternal. As this box set proves, he's every bit as great as history says he is.

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