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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

In 1951, Hank Williams was one of the biggest stars in country music. He was also a pitchman for Mother's Best Flour and Farm Feed, a company that sponsored a daily 15-minute radio show on which Hank and his band performed some hits, some hymns and featured him joking and plugging the product. These shows have only recently been released in a 15-disc set called "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings...Plus!"

Rock critic Ken Tucker says it offers a rare glimpse of a legend at work and play.

Mr. LOUIE BUCK (Announcer): The Millers of Mother's Best flour bring you that lovesick blues boy, Hank Williams.

(Soundbite of song, "Lovesick Blues")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Country Singer) (Singing) I got a feeling called the blues, oh, Lord, since my baby said goodbye. And I don't know what I'll do. All I do is sit and sigh, oh, Lord.

Mr. BUCK: The Miller's of Mother's Best Flour...

KEN TUCKER: 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 a recording studio in Nashville.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're feeling good, Louie, and you're feeling good. So that's make it unanimous.

Mr. BUCK: Unanimous.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And that's it, huh?

Mr. BUCK: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Unanimous. We got a unanimous song to start here with this morning. The key of D, fellas. Sad story, "Just When I Needed You."

(Soundbite of song, "Just When I Needed You")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Just when I needed you, you left and went away. You made my life so blue both night and day. You left me here behind, with a troubled worried mind, so broken hearted, too, just when I needed you.

TUCKER: 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 his 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 when he was traveling the country.

Mr. WILLIAMS: "Dust on the Bible." Let's go.

(Soundbite of song, "Dust on the Bible")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) I went into a home one day to see some friends of mine. Of all the books and magazines, not a Bible could I find. I asked them for the Bible, when they brought it, what a shame, for the dust was covered over it, and not a fingerprint was plain.

Dust on the Bible, dust on the holy word. The words of all the prophets and the sayings of our Lord. Of all the other books you'll find, there's none salvation holds. Get that dust off the Bible and redeem your poor soul.

TUCKER: 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 score 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 years old.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's called "If You Mind Your Business You Won't Have Time to be Minding Mine."

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "If You Mind Your Business You Won't Have Time to be Minding Mine")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) If the wife and I start fussing, brother, that's our right, 'cause me and that sweet woman's got a license to fight. Why don't you mind your own business? Mind your own business. 'Cause if you mind your business, then you won't be minding mine.

Oh, the woman on our party line's the nosey thing. She picks up her receiver when she knows it's my ring. Why don't she mind her own business? Mind your own business. 'Cause, if you mind your business, then you won't be minding mine.

TUCKER: One of 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. Listen to the way he covers another writer's song, "I Cant Tell My Heart That," and gently criticizes its flat vocal rhyme construction when he finishes.

(Soundbite of song, "I Cant Tell My Heart That")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, I can't tell my heart that you are no good. I'd give this world, if only I could. You cheated and lied, then you left me flat. Oh yes, it's true, but I can't tell my heart that.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: That's a good one. That's a good one there.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You left me flat. Don't know where you're at.

Unidentified Man: Can't tell my heart that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But I can't tell my heart that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TUCKER: The "Mother's Best" box set, which includes meticulous 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 would die 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 clich´┐Ż with many rock stars - well, he was a loose goose, a commercial shrewdie and a generous genius, as well.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings...Plus!"

Mr. WILLIAMS: Get your cheese ups, your gorge, your bugles and your banjos, our long tall rhythm picker, our puny guitar player and our antique bass knocker and you boys' rhythm picker, and we're going to leave you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Early in the morning, this is Hank Williams, saying thanks a lot for listening to us. Kathryn, put the eggs in skillet, put some biscuits in the oven, Bocephus, we going to sop some biscuits directly. Luigi?

Mr. BUCK: Friends, you know, every experiment station and every successful hog raiser has proved that grain and pasture must be balanced with a complete supplement like Mother's Best 40 Percent for a topnotch results. Mother's Best 40 Percent hog supplement adds essential feed elements to grain and pasture, bolsters them with antibiotic feeds supplements and steps them up with animal proteins that give hogs faster, steadier growth and better finish at a saving of feed, the saving of labor and savings of money. Get a supply of Mother's Best 40 Percent hog supplements today. You're Mother's Best dealer in St. Joseph, Tennessee is the St. Joseph Milling Company, and in Winchester it's William Yarbrook. So in the morning, this is Cousin Louie Buck saying the best of everything to you, and that's Mother's Best. Goodbye now.

DAVIES: Coming up, we remember actor Tony Curtis, who died Wednesday at the age of 85.

This is FRESH AIR.

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