Hank Williams' Lost Music: Rare And Resurfaced A new Hank Williams collection has just been released, featuring songs that few fans have heard. The Unreleased Recordings of Hank Williams includes rare performances from a Nashville radio program Williams hosted in 1951. The legend's daughter, Jett Williams, discusses the origins of the newly found treasure trove of music.
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Hank Williams' Lost Music: Rare And Resurfaced

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Hank Williams' Lost Music: Rare And Resurfaced

Hank Williams' Lost Music: Rare And Resurfaced

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Country music is narrative art that is popular around the world. At the pinnacle of that performance art you can find names that include Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. But on a level above, somewhere in the clouds, that's where you find Hank Williams. No matter how much the man's songs have been played, studied, cried over and admired, unless you were listening to WSM Nashville on the morning of February 3, 1951, you haven't heard this Hank before.

(Soundbite of song "Cold, Cold Heart")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) Another love before my time made your heart sad and blue And so, my heart is paying now for things I didn't do In anger, unkind words are said that make the teardrops start Why I can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.

SIMON: "The Unreleased Recordings of Hank Williams" includes performances from the Mother's Best Flour radio program that Hank Williams hosted in 1951. Time Life has just released the songs in a box set.

When Hank Williams died on New Year's Eve 1953 at the age of 29, only 29, he left behind a child who was yet to be born. Jett Williams is Hank Williams' only daughter. She joins us now from Nashville. Ms. Williams, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JETT WILLIAMS: Well, listen. Thank you so much, and I really do appreciate your interest in this treasure throve of the Mother's Best of my dad, Hank Williams.

SIMON: And how did these recordings go missing all these years? Because I mean, there was - there must have been keen interest over the years to find anything with his voice on it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Back in 1951, my dad was, you know, getting at a zenith, and he was traveling so therefore he could not do a live radio show every morning. So what they did is he would go in, say, Monday and Tuesday, but then they would put what they called "in the can" Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. And back then, they recorded on what they called an acetate, and these acetates were made for the one-time play. They were put in boxes. And later, when WSM was moving, they discarded these acetates and a gentleman by the name of Les Leverate actually rescued them, and he kept them until later when he met me in the '80s. He said that he believed that these belonged to the daughter of Hank Williams.

SIMON: So they were just there waiting to be discovered.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. But in the meantime, unfortunately, this company got a bootleg copy, and they tried to duplicate and commercialize it. And so therefore we ended up bringing a lawsuit, and then the courts ruled that these recordings belonged to the estate. They were not for commercial exportation.

SIMON: Many of these songs just are so familiar to us, for those of us who have treasured your father's work. Let's listen to a little bit of this one.

(Soundbite of song "I Can't Help It")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) A picture from the past came slowly stealing As I brushed your arm and walked so close to you Then suddenly I got that old time feeling And I can't help it if I'm still in love with you

SIMON: Ms. Williams?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

SIMON: You're a professional. What is there about your father's voice that just seems to reach inside, reach inside you and tear out your heart?

Ms. WILLIAMS: When I hear my dad sing, to me it sounds like he is singing like his life depends on it. I mean, you stop and catch your breath, and you feel as if he's singing that song just to you.

(Soundbite of song "I Can't Help It")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) It's hard to know another's lips will kiss you And hold you just the way I used to do

SIMON: This was the first time this song was performed, near as we can tell?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And Time Life has also included some of his chatter, where he sets up the song. I mean, there's very little of anything of my dad's speaking, and so you actually get to hear about the history about that song.

(Soundbite of Mother's Best Flour radio program, 1951)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes, sir, that one got him.

Mr. Louie Buck (Mother's Best Flour Radio Announcer): It's as sure as it were, Hank.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Grand spanking new one, good Louie.

Mr. Buck: I like that one.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Nobody hearing that but me and you and the folks are just listening.

Ms. WILLIAMS: But the other thing that's fascinating about the Mother's Best is back when my dad was recording under MGM, what they did was they applied compressors and limiters and filters, and that kind of robbed some of that presence that we're hearing in these recordings. These were made direct to the disc. OK? So it didn't have that middleman or anything in there. And I know a lot of people, you know, would say, oh, those are just rare recordings or old recordings, and they're going to sound like that. Well, you can hear, these are better than the MGM masters.

SIMON: Yeah, you can hear the breath. You really can.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, actually, if you listen carefully on some of these, they didn't even filter out. You know, this is being done in a studio. And as you well know, a lot of times there's that little background noise or somebody calls or they're talking. Well, if you listen, in some of this, we left all that in there. I mean, it's as close to you being in that studio with my dad when he recorded these things. You know, or he's - or you're sitting at your kitchen table just like in 1951, when he was, you know, doing these in the morning for those ladies baking those biscuits and those guys out there in the barn milking the cows.

SIMON: Yeah. Another tune we want to play that I don't think will be nearly as familiar, and that's the art and the fun of it. A song called, "You Blotted My Happy School Days."

(Soundbite of song "You Blotted My Happy School Days")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) When I entered that schoolroom that morning in May I noticed you over the way And then with your pen, dear, you painfully wrote You blotted my happy school days I blotted your happy school days I'm sorry I caused you this pain, I'll ask God to forgive me and to guide me always For I blotted your happy school days.

SIMON: I love this song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I hadn't heard it before. Had you heard it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, sir I hadn't. My dad in 1950 won, you know, it's hard for me to believe he hadn't written "Collide" or "Your Cheating Heart," and so what is fascinating is I think that he had the honor of picking the songs he wanted to sing. And so therefore he's singing new songs that were on the radio, songs that were getting ready to come out that he wrote, but then he was singing, you know, old songs that we've never heard before. He's singing other people's songs. But some of the songs that you get to hear him sing, you know, I think, as I said, I think these songs were his favorites, and that's why he sang them.

SIMON: Can we talk about you a bit?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, sure.

SIMON: Because you weren't always called Jett Williams, let me put it that way.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No. I grew up as an adopted child, and I started on that search like a lot of adopted kids, and all I wanted to do was find out, hopefully, who I was and what happened.

SIMON: How old were you when you found out?

Ms. WILLIAMS: When I knew to a moral certainty I was probably in my early 30s because back when I started - unfortunately for me, I do not have - the Internet was not available, so therefore it was the old kind of gumshoe hit the pavement, and that's really hard because, you know, when you face somebody, they can shut the door in your face, and it's not as easy to be able to have the information that today we have at our fingertips.

SIMON: To begin search for your father and then to find out your father was Hank Williams...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: That's like out of a Disney movie. My gosh!

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I tell people - honest, Scott - if I made this story up, it wouldn't be this good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It was important to find out that this man, Hank Williams, was my father, but what was more important was to know that my daddy wanted me. And even though I was born five days after he died - I never met him - but three months before I was born he went to his lawyers. He signed notarized papers saying, this is my baby, and I'm going to take full custody of my baby.

SIMON: Would have been neat to grow up with him, wouldn't it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, man, I'd give anything to, you know, have been able to sit on his lap. I mean, to just actually have him as my dad, to go fishing with him. You know, a lot of times I think my husband and I are fortunate to have things, and I've got a (unintelligible), I love to fish. And I said, the other morning I said, wouldn't it have been neat if my dad was alive, and I said, we could have, you know, just load up the boat and head on out there and drown the worm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Jett, could I ask you to pick a song from this Mother's Best unreleased recordings that you'd like us to go out on?

Ms. WILLIAMS: One of them, I think - and it has sort of a family history story for me - is "On Top of Old Smoky."

(Soundbite of Mother's Best Flour radio program, 1951)

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, Louie, there's an old song going around here that is one of the top pop tunes in the nation that my grandmother taught me, one of the first songs that I ever remember singing.

Mr. Buck: What was that?

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS: I think "On Top of Old Smoky."

Mr. Buck: Old Smoky.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Remember that thing?

Mr. Buck: Yeah, man.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Now, maybe I'll sing it the way she taught it to me, and back in them days, they didn't sing it like they're singing it now. I'm gonna get the boys and see if we can do it like the old, old timers used to do it.

Mr. Buck: All right, let's hear it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: "On Top of Old Smoky," huh?

(Soundbite of song "On Top of Old Smoky")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) On top of Old Smoky All covered in snow...

SIMON: Jett, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, Scott, thank you for your interest. You know, as I said, to me this is totally historical, and I'm just so thrilled to death that it survived.

SIMON: Jett Williams, speaking from the studios of Spotland Productions in Nashville. This new box set is called "The Unreleased Recordings of Hank Williams." It is available from Time Life, and you can hear more Hank Williams on our Web site, npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of song "On Top of Old Smoky")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) A thief he will rob you And take what you have But a false-hearted lover Will put you in your grave On top of Old Smoky...

SIMON: And to see just how far back around my admiration of Hank Williams goes, you can visit our weekend soapbox blog at npr.org/soapbox. And by the way, you can download and subscribe to this and other features from our show. Just come to npr.org/wesat, or you can find us on wetunes. It's called At Your Leisure from Weekend Edition. What did I say? I said wetunes. I beg your pardon, I meant iTunes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

By the way, Allison Stewart, who can speak much better than I can, is going to take over this seat next week, and you don't have to get a pencil out and write down any special address for her. Just tune in this radio program called Weekend Edition Saturday. This is Weekend Edition Saturday from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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