These days, Hank Williams is enshrined as the poet of country music, the man who established the classic modern country music myth and body of work: a spangled, grimly grinning performer who sang about hard times both romantic and economic. But the Mother's Best recordings tell a different story: Here is Hank Williams the working musician, an ambitious young man who strove to make his immense creativity seem as tossed-off as the banter with which he engaged the people in the recording studio in Nashville.
A typical Mother's Best program consisted of five parts. An intro by announcer Louie Buck over which Hank sang what was then his biggest hit, "Lovesick Blues." After some opening remarks, frequently some byplay with Hank teasing the band about everything from their haircuts to how sleepy they all were at 7 a.m., Williams would launch into a country song, usually one he'd written or a cover of someone else's. Then there'd be a live commercial for Mother's Best flour and farm feed, followed by a gospel song or hymn.
Then there's another song that was often a familiar standard of the time, such as "On Top of Old Smokey," and finally some closing remarks and a musical exit. Williams and his band did this live in the studio, or more frequently, since he maintained a brutal touring schedule, recorded in advance on acetate when he was traveling the country.
Spread over 15 discs, The Complete Mother's Best recordings could have used some editing. Hearing the same intro and the same snatch of "Lovesick Blues" re-done scores of times is a few scores too many. And Hank's generosity in having his wife, Audrey, sing during a number of these sessions reminds music fans once again that love isn't just blind; it's also deaf. But there's a lot of priceless material here, all of it accompanied by a superlative band led by the great steel-guitar player Don Helms, then a scant 24.
Among the great things about this set are the unguarded moments in which Williams gives us little glimpses of his sense of humor — and, even better, his sense of craft. When he covers "I Cant Tell My Heart That," for example, he humorously criticizes its flat-vowel rhyme construction when he finishes.
The Mother's Best box set, which includes meticulous annotated comments on every performance by the Hank Williams scholar Colin Escott, is too repetitive to replace one of the many good greatest-hits collections available. But if you're a hardcore fan, it's packed with great moments. Two years after making these recordings, Hank Williams died of a heart attack in the back seat of a car taking him to his next concert. The Mother's Best collection reminds us that the man who came to symbolize tortured genius — and who's been stuffed into the live-fast-die-young cliché with many rock stars — well, he was a loose goose, a commercial shrewdie and a generous genius, as well.