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Hank Williams was twenty-nine when he died in 1953, yet his songs and influence have endured. He was inducted into both the Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Country Music Halls of Fame. Earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize board honored Williams with a special citation. It praised him “for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.” Though little is known about the man behind the music, a new box set of a Nashville radio show Williams hosted in 1951 aims to change that. These recordings show the musician as humorous, folksy and ambitious. We’ll look at Hank Williams the man and the legacy.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd that's exactly how the "Mother's Best Flour Radio Show" opened January 10, 1951. It aired at 7:15 a.m. on WSMN Nashville. Hank Williams was at the pinnacle of his popularity at the time and on the road constantly, which is why many of the shows were recorded and preserved, but as we'll discuss, they were almost lost. The box set of these shows "Hank Williams: the Complete Mother's Best Recordings Plus" has just been released. Joining me in the studio, Hank Williams' daughter, Jett Williams, who produced the set and Colin Escott, who wrote the extensive liner notes for it. I know you'll want to talk to both of these folks, so give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Jett Williams.
MS. JETT WILLIAMSGood morning and thank ya'll for having us.
REHMOh, it's my pleasure and good morning to you, Colin Escott.
MR. COLIN ESCOTTGood morning, Diane. Thank you for having us.
REHMSo glad to have you here. Colin, tell us about the "Mother's Own Flower Show."
ESCOTT"Mother's Best," well, it's kind of -- it's like a little catechism on how the country music business has changed, you know, that back then, the top country singer of the day would do a 15 minute flour show or 15 minute show on local radios sponsored by a flour milling company for 100 bucks a week, you know. That's -- it's hard to think of any top country singer who'd do that today, but pretty much all of them did back then, but the thing is, I think, that these shows were recorded onto acetate at a time when tape was just coming in and I think if they'd been recorded on tape, they would have been recorded over and just lost forever.
REHMGone. Just gone, yeah.
ESCOTTYeah, because they were on acetate, they were preserved. And they stayed in storage. I mean, Jett knows the story better than I do, but, you know, they were preserved for -- you know, in storage for a good number of years and found, litigated over and finally now we can have them out, you know, just like a little time capsule from 1951.
REHMWell, that's what I want to get to, why it's taken so long to get them out, Jett?
WILLIAMSWell, these were recorded, as he said, in the year 1951. They were for a one time play when my dad could not be in the studio because you're talking a morning show five days a week and his touring schedule was so intense that he couldn't be present. And so they recorded it onto the acetate and so when my dad was in say, Cleveland, Ohio, the engineer would play the acetate and then put it over in a box and that's where they stayed until around, I believe it was in the '60s, 1960s, when WSN was moving and they were deciding what was gonna -- what they were gonna take and what they were gonna throw away.
REHMAnd what they were gonna throw out.
WILLIAMSAnd what kinda breaks my heart is what got thrown away that during that move, but a gentleman by the name of Les Leveret saw the boxes and said, are ya'll going to throw that away? and they said, yes. He said, well, do you mind if I take them? And they said, no, go ahead. So Les took these acetates and kept them for years and during that period of time, they were transferred over to tape and Les and a gentleman by the name of Hillus Bertram, who was a later drifting cowboy, tried to see if they could find some interest in having these duplicated.
WILLIAMSIt wasn't until, I believe in the '90s that a company bought a bootleg copy. They were going to commercially exploit it. And the meantime, Les Leveret had given me all of the acetates, the originals. My husband, Keith Atkinson, who's one of the attorneys for the estate got an injunction to stop this company. Hank Jr. and I, for a change, were on the same legal side of the table. We fought against this company and in the meantime, Polydorm Polygram, which was the record company, jumped in and they said they owned these recordings, so we went through an eight year legal battle.
WILLIAMSThe courts ruled that these recordings belonged to the estate and then when we got clear title on the recordings, then we partnered with Time Life to have this released.
REHMAnd I must say the container in which the whole set comes is really spectacular, looking like an old time radio. Now, Jett, talk about your own situation because you didn't know until you were an adult that you were truly Hank Williams' daughter.
WILLIAMSWell, I grew up as an adopted child and like a lot of adopted children, I went on the search to find out who I was and what happened. And I didn't know if I would get the answers that I wanted to hear, but, you know, I wanted to just to try and find out and of course, I hit brick wall after brick wall and unfortunately, at that time, the internet was not in existence, so, you know, I did not have the information at my fingers, so I had to do it the old fashioned pound the pavement, knock on the doors.
WILLIAMSAnd -- but what was wonderful for me was I met a gentleman by the name of Keith Atkinson and he helped me in my search and I found out that everyone knew of my existence. I was actually the best kept secret in country music. And that my father had signed legal papers concerning me three months before I was born. And in these papers -- they were drawn up by his attorney and he -- it was a notarized -- it's actually the only notarized copy that my dad ever signed of anything and in it, it says, this is my baby, I want my baby and I'm gonna take my baby. And at -- what happened was my dad died on January 1. They buried him on January 4 and I was born before the sun came up on January 6. So I never met my father, but with that paper, I knew that when I made that announcement, it wasn't just that I was the daughter of Hank Williams, it was that my daddy wanted me.
REHMAnd what about your mother?
WILLIAMSBy the time I found who she was, she was deceased, but when I was born in Montgomery, Ala., my grandmother, Mrs. Williams, Hank's mother, took me to her home and she legally adopted me.
REHMSo was your mother not in the picture at all?
WILLIAMSWell, if you read that pre-birth custody contract that -- my parents had some kind of relationship because in that document, they both got visitation. I would spend the summers with her in California, the winter months with my father, much like a divorce decree. I think at that time, when my dad passed away, she's giving birth, not married, you know, the grandmother steps in and says, look, I can give this child all of these -- a home and all of these advantages that, you know, she said, and this is what my son wanted. I think that's one of the reasons that she released me to my grandmother.
REHMTell me about the song "The Blind Child's Prayer," Colin.
ESCOTTYou know, I think what's fascinating about "The Blind Child's Prayer" is that when Hank made his commercial recordings, they were rooted in the here and now. They were songs that he'd just written, for the most part, so we never really got a sense of how deep his roots went and this is a song that was -- it was an old folk song from the Ozarks and, you know, Hank by doing it showed that he was deeply, deeply grounded and where country music came from.
REHMThat is Hank Williams singing from "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings." He is of course singing "The Blind Child's Prayer." Here in the studio Jett Williams, daughter of Hank Williams and Colin Escott, Grammy award winning author and line writer. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Two people are here in the studio with me as we talk about Hank Williams and the "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings." We've already had an e-mail from someone who says -- this is Gene in Raleigh who says, "Last Christmas, my wife gave me the box set of three unreleased recordings by Hank and I've enjoyed learning and relearning and playing some of these old songs which have been so influential on country, bluegrass and folk music in this country and abroad."
REHMAnd we're pleased to have with us this morning Jett Williams. She is the daughter of Hank Williams, the only daughter. Her autobiography "Ain't Nothin' As Sweet As My Baby" was published in 1990. Colin Escott is Grammy Award winning author and music historian. He's written the liner notes for "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings." We are going to open the phones shortly to take your calls and read your e-mail, your messages on Facebook, as well as your Tweets. Jett Williams, your father died at such a young age. He was only 29. Talk about his problems with alcohol and drugs.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, I believe that he did have some problems with alcohol and prescription drugs because he had had a back operation, but I believe in my heart of hearts that the myth spinners, as I call them, tend to want to play the dark side up. And if you believed everything that you read about him, especially with this radio show and with us being able to hear him, how he's an MC and tells jokes and that he actually is happy and laughing, is that he is not as dark a figure and he wasn't as down and out and lonely as some of the people that have written about him, in the fact that by dying at 29, he only had like a three and a half year career. And to have achieved all that he did in that window, it's like, you now, threading the eye of a needle.
WILLIAMSAnd to have been out as much as they would like for him to be, I just logically can't fathom that he wrote all those songs, recorded all those songs, made all those appearances, did the Opries, did the radio shows and all of that. I'm not saying that he didn't -- I think that when the back operation came in that with the touring schedule -- and also we have to remember it's 1951, '52, we don't have the luxuries we've got today of these tour buses and 24-hour, you know, truck stops and interstates and private jets and things like that to get around in.
REHMOne of the reports I read indicated he may have been born with spina bifida.
WILLIAMSIn the autopsy that was performed in Oak Hill, W.Va., that is on the autopsy report, but I don't know that he had any curvature of the spine. He was six feet tall. You know, I don't -- I know that -- as I said, I know that he had the back operation, but...
REHMWas it for pain that this back operation took place?
WILLIAMSThat I'm not -- Colin may have -- know the exact reason why he had that.
ESCOTTYou know, one of the first songs he ever wrote back way before he became famous was a song called "The Backache Blues." So, you know, clearly, this was a problem that dogged him his whole life and I think it just -- I think traveling, as Jett said on the -- you know, on two-lane highways in family sedans...
ESCOTT...you know, day after day after day must've just exacerbated a pre-existing condition, I think.
WILLIAMSThere's an old story that he ran away as a child and joined the circus and got thrown from a horse. The other, I think a story that Jerry Rivers told me, was that he was hunting with my Dad and he went to jump a little creek and slipped and fell and hit his back. And I think that might've been maybe the incident that set off major back problems
REHMThere's a song that has very special significance for you and that's "On Top of Old Smoky." Why?
WILLIAMSWell, growing up as an adopted child and then to find out that I'm the daughter of Hank Williams and that he wanted me and that his mother adopted me and wanted to keep me in the family, one of the things is to be able to hear -- for me to hear my dad tell a story or tell me a family tidbit as opposed to reading what someone thought he thought. And the way he sets the song up, he says it's the top pop tune in the country, but he's going to sing it the way his grandmother put him to bed. And so for his daughter, now when I hear this song, what I think of is my dad as a young child and being tucked into the bed and, you know, his grandmother sitting there and him saying something like, grandma or nana, would you sing me something? And she croons to him this song.
REHMI am so impressed by the quality of these recordings, Jett.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, it's amazing because they weren't exactly stored under the best conditions for those many years we talked about, but I think the -- one thing that was fascinating to me was that when we were doing transfers, we would -- they would have different gauge needles and we would sit there and close your eyes and let the ears tell you which needle could actually reach down in those grooves and give us the best sound.
WILLIAMSAnd the other thing, very little, if anything, was done on the transfers as far as a hiss or a pop. The biggest thing was making sure that -- you have 72 shows -- that the level when you leave one show to the next show is somewhat balanced so you don't have something that's really bright or dropped. And I think as Colin worked with Joe on this, really deserves kudos for being able to give us the fidelity because it's as good, if not better, than the MGM masters.
REHMAnd how I loved hearing that. Hank's wife Audrey, Colin, is on many of the early shows. Tell us about that relationship and how that worked in the beginning.
ESCOTTWell, you know, Audrey, God bless her, did not have the best singing voice, but she wanted to be an entertainer. And I think she saw Hank's success as kind of a springboard from which she could launch her own career. And she got a recording contract with Decca Records around the time of the "Mother's Best" shows and she was promoting her Decca recordings on the "Mother's Best" shows. Hank said one time, boys, it's heck to have a wife who wants to sing, but it's hell to have one who wants to sing and can't. And Audrey, she couldn't, but she sung anyway.
REHMAnd here is a piece "Thank God My Mother Prayed for Me."
REHMThat's Hank Williams and his wife Audrey singing "Thank God My Mother Prayed for Me." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of folks waiting on the phones. Let's open the phones, take some calls, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Good morning, Patricia.
PATRICIAGood morning, Diane and Jett. I will try to make this as brief as possible. During Hank's primetime not only was I a fan, but I was a disc jockey here in Grand Rapids of classic country music. And during that time, Hank was recording transcriptions for Army recruiting. They were 15-minute segments and when I left the radio station, because "they canned the country music," I said, may I have the library? And they said, why not. And I brought all of it home with me and I still have lots of those transcriptions of Hank and his 15-minute recruiting segments. And he did basically the same thing he's doing on these releases now and I wouldn't part with them for the world.
REHMHow about that, Jett?
WILLIAMSWell, that's just another treasure trove of my dad and we're just so fortunate that, you know, as people start to go through their attics and their trunks and things like that, not only my dad's music and stuff have survived or have been saved, other -- a lot of wonderful gifts have been brought back.
REHMThanks for calling, Patricia. You know, we heard Hank singing with Audrey in that last cut, but their marriage really didn't go too well and perhaps this song "Cold, Cold Heart" was one of the products that came out of it.
REHMOne of my very favorite songs, Hank Williams singing "Cold, Cold Heart," part of "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings Plus." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMYou know, what's extraordinary is that these recordings have never been released before. These were the live, well, to recording of these radio broadcasts and now for the first time, people can hear them on recordings. How does that make you feel, Jett?
WILLIAMSIt makes me feel fantastic. And when you hear these recordings, you can hear when it's live and there's no take backs. You can -- there's a magic, there's an energy that puts these recordings, I think, superior to what would be considered, say, the mastered version, because that's exactly what it is. You do it in a studio, an engineer, it's filtered, but where these recordings are live and my dad's singing it, someone said it -- you can tell it's a gut singing...
WILLIAMS...and the fact that he's just putting everything he owns into the version of it.
REHMAnd he moved a lot didn't he?
WILLIAMSHe did. He also, you know, set -- he was the first for a lot of first superstar, first entertainer to dress, to have a MO with the suits and the cowboy hats and the -- you know, and then also to actually -- when he performed on stage, to actually, you know, have that movement to the music and, you know, I think he set a high bar and a lot of entertainers followed him.
REHMA long time before Elvis Presley started moving.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, the thing about Elvis, I said, if you look at my dad, you can see a lot of the characteristics, too. And also, too, I know from people -- I never met Elvis, but I've talked to a lot of people that played on some of his sessions and he was a -- Elvis absolutely adored my dad and recorded a lot of his music.
REHMNow, I want to let listeners know you can see a pictorial tribute to Hank Williams at our website, drshow.org, so I hope you'll take advantage of that. Here's a comment, let's see, from Marie, who says, "Jett, you mentioned earlier you were the best secret in country music. Do you think it did you a disservice and do you think it fueled the issues you and Hank Williams Jr. had later in your life?"
WILLIAMSI think it did a disservice in being denied the right to your identity of how you really are and where your genes in your historian part of your life comes from. When Hank Jr. and I first met and I said to him that, you know, it was a real shame that as adults, we had to straighten out a mess that we did not create because both of us were taken advantage of as minors and the estate was set up to where you had the attorneys for the estate and the administrators and we were minors and had no say so and they kept my father's estate open past my 23rd birthday and ran the statutes without notifying me.
WILLIAMSAnd so as adults, as I said, we both had to straighten it out and we did and it's hard to believe that's some 17 years ago and that we have put our father's image, music and memory and legacy to the front. And both of us have stepped up to the plate as the children of Hank Williams to make sure that, with this project especially, that his music is shared throughout the world.
REHMYou know, it's interesting because after your grandmother died, you ended up in a lot of different foster homes.
WILLIAMSOne of the conditions for my grandmother to adopt me, because of her age and health, was that I would stay within the family. Well, her daughter, when her mother passed, immediately put me into the care of the state of Alabama. I was put into the foster homes, later adopted again. My identity was concealed from me until I went on that search. And as I said, I not only got the answers to my questions, they were the answers I wanted to hear, that I was wanted.
REHMNow, here is a message for you, "Is it true that your father broke into Nashville by composing "Your Cheating Heart" for a producer in 15 minutes? And is it true that the only chords he knew were C, G and D7?" Colin?
ESCOTTI think we've already proved that he knew more than three chords just this morning, haven't we? And now, he certainly didn't break in with "Your Cheating Heart" 'cause that didn't actually come out until after he died. It was released about a week after he died. He came to Nashville to write religious songs for Fred Rose and there's a story that could be true, it could not, that Fred gave him a title and Hank went back to Montgomery and wrote a song around it, but that song was "Mansion on the Hill."
WILLIAMSThe movie that came out in the '60s, "Your Cheating Heart," that actually -- the scene was that Fred Rose gave my dad to write a song and he went in the room and, of course, the song he wrote was "Your Cheating Heart." But that song was written in the very end of my dad's life and, as Colin said, it was released after his death, but the song that best we can tell that he wrote was "Mansion on the Hill."
REHMLet's go now to Hot Springs, Ark. Good morning, Ben.
BENGood morning. I just wanted to share that I've been all over the world. I'm a professor. I'll be teaching at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City College next year, but I've just finished teaching with the Texas College out on the ships with the United States military and I once had a radio program called BB and C, Big Ben and Company and I played Hang Williams on that. And I also sang it for Maggie, Duchess of Argyll and the most startling time was when I sang it in the House of Lords and the Houses of the Parliament for Lord Longford and Lady Brain, who was married to Lord Brain, from North Carolina and I did a yodeling version up in the House of Lords, the dome there. I thought it was hilarious. It travels well. That's what I've got to tell you.
BENI've carried it all over the world with me. I even sing it sometimes when I'm out on a frigate in the combat zones in the Gulf of Aden working for the peace program for the Navy out in -- off the coast of Somalia. It's an amazing thing how it travels. I come from Oklahoma and I had a group called The Guadalupe River Bottom Boys. I used to hang out with Mason Williams. You know him from "Classical Gas" and the Smothers Brothers, but it is just -- it's a country tradition and, you know, we just love it. It is the voice of the people, it's the voice of the pulse, Woody Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land." In my program, I used to use Arlo Guthrie's, you know, you can get anything you want at "Alice's Restaurant," but...
REHMBen, that's just great. Thank you for sharing those memories. To Brad in Greensboro, N.C., you're on the air.
BRADHello. Thank you. Jett, you may not remember this story, but back in the '80s before you settled the estate question with your family that you had just learned about, actually, and it was definite that you were Hank's daughter, there was a party in Birmingham, Ala. You were planning to record. And I'm a songwriter and some of my songwriter friends invited me to come to this party and we were gonna play songs -- pitch songs for you. And my wife is adopted, so she went with me to see who this Jett Williams was. Well, the problem was you and she stayed in the other room talking about finding her birth parents and what you had done and you were counseling her on this.
BRADAnd so none of the songwriters were able to pitch any songs to you because you guys were tied up all night talking about it. And I must say, the thing that impressed me was that you were just -- despite your quickly growing fame over this, you were just another person that was there and your grandmother did well. You weren't above your raising, as they say in Alabama. And I was traveling recently, I saw that you were playing -- performing somewhere and I thought, oh, it's good to know Jett's getting out and playing, so you are still playing occasionally, I assume?
WILLIAMSYes. And I'll take those songs now.
BRADOh, Okay. I'd just like to know where to send them.
WILLIAMSWell, just go on the internet, type in my name and we'll make contact.
BRADOkay. My name is Brad Reeves and thank you, Diane.
REHMAll right, Brad. I'm glad you called. I guess people approach you a lot with potential songs.
WILLIAMSWell, yes, they do. And the thing about it is, is I tell people, I said, you know, some songs are good, some songs -- I said, they're like clothes. And I think that's where, like, with my dad when he could write his own songs to fit his style, it's like having custom made clothes and so not every song fits every singer and so if you can find the singer that can fit that style, then you may well just have a hit.
REHMJett Williams, she's a musician in her own right, the only daughter of Hank Williams, Colin Escott, Grammy Award winning author and music historian. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There's a song here I'd like to hear. And it's "I Am Bound for the Promised Land." Tell us about that, Colin.
ESCOTTYou know, every show, Hank did a hymn. He signed off every show with a hymn and he wrote some good ones. You know, he wrote "I Saw the Light." But, you know, he was doing a show every day, so he quickly exhausted the supply of his own hymns, so that forced him -- that forced him back, you know, to the hymns that he learned when he was a kid. And this, I guess, was one that he retrieved from some old hymnal, you know, that he sang. I mean, he always said the first memory he had was sitting on the piano stool next to his mom in a little country church in Alabama listening to her sing and play the piano. And I would very much bet this is one of the songs he picked up there.
REHMHow I love these hymns. And you say he included them in every program.
ESCOTTEvery show, there was a hymn.
REHMIsn't that great. Okay. Let's take a caller in Cape Cod, Mass. Good morning, Barbara.
BARBARAGood morning. Enjoy your program, Diane.
REHMI'm so glad.
BARBARAI just wanted to say to Jett, I wanted to say how much I appreciate your father's music and I've always heard it from my parents because I grew up with my parents' music. This was my parents' music. We need more of this on the radio today. We have a lot of music that you can't understand the words to. The music your father was singing, we can understand the words to it and really love it.
REHMYou know, it's true. There is music on the air today where you hear music, you have no idea what people are saying.
WILLIAMSWell, unfortunately, I think today everybody's depending on the technology. It can cross the t's and dot the i's, but it cannot give the voice the personality. And I think that they've sorta stereo-lized the music, but to our caller's point, I believe that my father's music is generational because I hear, I saw your father back in 1951 or, my mama's favorite singer or, you know, I heard your dad on the radio and it's part of America's music fabric, I believe, and it's -- as I said, it's generational and it's been passed down and it's still being passed down.
REHMAll right. And there's one last song that we have to hear and that's "Cool Water." Tell us about that, Colin.
ESCOTTWell, the funny thing about Hank Williams is that he dressed his band like cowboys, you know, with the hats and the western outfits, but he -- the music he loved I think came from his personal experience and his personal experience was not of the west and he only ever did two songs, two western songs. This is one of them. I think it could just be his finest vocal performance to -- for this amount of control at this tempo to keep the tension going is pretty magical.
REHMAnd all the music you've heard this morning came from "Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings Plus" My guest, Jett Williams, daughter of Hank Williams, Colin Escott, he's Grammy Award winning author, music historian. Thank you both so much.
ESCOTTThank you, Diane.
WILLIAMSThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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