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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A box set of previously unreleased recordings by country music legend Hank Williams is now available. It's a collection of radio broadcasts from 1951 called "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings...Plus." The 15 CDs and one DVD increased the size of Hank's music catalog by half.

Critic Meredith Ochs has our review.

MEREDITH OCHS: Though it's well-known that Hank Williams was a charismatic performer, a true superstar, he's also thought of as a tragic figure. The Lovesick Blues Boy, a man who sang songs of heartache and loneliness, who infamously died in the back of a car at age 29, a one-dimensional, sepia-toned character who looked and sounded much older than he actually was.

(Soundbite of song. "Lovesick Blues")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) Well, I'm nobody's sugar daddy now, and I'm lonesome. I got the lovesick blues.

OCHS: But "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings" reveals the fun Hank, the Hank who wrote "Hey, Good Lookin'," the morning Hank, perhaps, since these recordings are a series of radio shows that aired at 7:15 a.m.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, sir, it's Mother's Best biscuit time. Here we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OCHS: Far from forlorn, Williams is jovial, riffing on the ad copy, joking with the band and his wife, Audrey, even laughing out loud.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And now we got a gal with us who cooks that mother's best biscuit out of my house.

You feeling good?

Ms. AUDREY WILLIAMS: Feel fine, honey.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Feel fine, huh? You sound like you didn't mean it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I do.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You do mean it, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

OCHS: Because of his relentless touring schedule, Hank Williams had to pre-tape many of his radio shows for WSM. He and his band recorded on 16-inch acetate discs that were only meant to be played a couple of times, then thrown away. In fact, WSM nearly did throw the whole collection away in the late 1970s, but Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett rescued them. Done extemporaneously, the recordings have a clear, immediate sound that put Williams in the room with you. You can hear it on this version of "Cold, Cold Heart," which Williams had just recorded.

(Soundbite of song, "Cold, Cold Heart")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) The more I learn to care for you, the more we drift apart. Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?

Unidentified Man: Yes, sir. That's a (unintelligible) good, I think. Yes, sir.

OCHS: "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings" shows Hank Williams as someone who loved life and who lived to perform, who could speak directly to the radio audience as if he were staring into their eyes.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Friends, we'd like to say to all of you nice people, thank you for your cards and letters. We get a lot of them every day here on our "Mother's Best Show." It makes us feel awful good to hear from you. A lot of our friends that write to us are people that are shut in. In fact, the only joy that they get out of life is reading and listening to the radio.

OCHS: A lot of the real estate on "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings" is taken up by advertising. After all, Hank Williams was there to sell flour, grain and corn.

Mr. WILLIAMS: All right. You know, man, oh, man, on these crisp mornings, there's nothing like a plate full of piping hot, fragrant biscuits, mm-mm, to make a man feel like singing and dancing. You know the kind of biscuits I mean? Rich, light and fluffy. The sort of biscuits the South is famous for. And you know you can give your family biscuits like that every time if you will bake them with Mother's Best Flour.

OCHS: But even the ads are charming, bringing us ever closer to Hank Williams the man instead of the ghost. There's magic in these radio shows, meant to be ephemeral and now captured for eternity, like a soap bubble preserved in a box, offering us a prismatic view of an iconic performer

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Blue eyes crying in the rain.

BLOCK: The box set of Hank Williams is called "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings...Plus." Our reviewer Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ with XM Sirius Satellite Radio.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain")

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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