Graded on a Curve:
Hank Williams,
Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and his Music in Rare Photos and Recordings

Hank Williams is an icon of early country music, but he recorded before the LP era really took hold, so his legacy is dominated by posthumously assembled compilations. These sets come in various sizes and levels of quality. The latest, Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and his Music in Rare Photos and Recordings, offers 144 transcriptions from Williams’ Mother’s Best radio program on six CDs, all tucked into a magnificent hardcover book loaded with photos, many of them in color, that serve to broaden the life of the artist beyond the still too common reduction of strife and an early death. It’s out now, but if it’s vinyl you require, the 3LP distillation Only Mother’s Best is also currently available from BMG.

When it comes to concise surveys of Hank Williams’ exceptional musical abilities (by which I mean single or double sets), the gold standard remains Polydor’s 40 Greatest Hits. Released in 1978, it was distinguished at the time for its lack of production meddling, as those four vinyl sides weren’t rechanneled into stereo and they lacked additional posthumous meddling such as overdubs and duet fakery.

40 Greatest Hits was just pure Hank, and for those who favored his work, disappointment in the listening was an impossibility. That’s not the same as being fully satisfied however, which is where the box sets enter the picture. Mercury’s 1998 10CD The Complete Hank Williams is an award winner, but amongst the numerous two- and three-disc collections, there’s an even bigger assemblage, Time Life’s The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus!, which emerged in 2010 as a 15CD behemoth.

As one might’ve deduced, there is a relationship between that release and the one under review here, with the difference being that Time Life simply rounded up the acetates of the original 15-minute broadcasts, which were sponsored by Mother’s Best flour. This left in all the instrumental bits, the guest musicians and the chatting and joking around.

There’s still a fair amount of talking and laughing going on across Pictures from Life’s Other Side, but the focus is only on Hank’s own performances, which includes numerous versions of some of his most well-known tunes plus a load of gospel selections and a few duets, notably with his wife Audrey, but not so many that folks who dislike her singing (and the number of disdainers is substantial) will be unhappy for very long.

The Time Life set is an extended journey down one of country music’s prime commercial avenues, specifically the sponsorship deal, circa 1951 (excepting the final program, everything was recorded that year) with Hank Williams very much at the fore. As Colin Escott explains in his closing essay in BMG’s book, the arrangement with Mother’s Best, and more to the point a flour company, was a circumstance tightly tied to Southern music of this era (Escott mentions bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson’s program for King Biscuit Flour).

Pictures from Life’s Other Side’s audio truncation serves to amplify Hank’s artistry while retaining the unique atmosphere of the radio program, with the banter and the playing relaxed.  One reason for this looseness relates to the size of the audience, which was surely substantial but within the context of daily activities and therefore casual.

It was a worthwhile gig but not so lucrative as to keep Williams and the Drifting Cowboys off the road, and anyway, the touring was in service of promoting records made for MGM, who surely cared little about Hank’s deal with Mother’s Best. This necessitated the recording of shows to be aired in the absence of Williams and band, which is the only reason this music survives.

If recorded (it’s important to stress onto acetate, not tape), there was no real expectation of preservation (though they obviously did survive), which helps to explain the lack of formality in the programs. Indeed, cut somewhat on the fly, this aspect is nicely counterbalanced with the desire to maintain a standard of quality.

What really comes through as these discs unwind is a level of professionalism that sometimes gets misplaced in a Hank Williams bio that plays up his firing from the Grand Ole Opry and the shows that were poorly played or missed outright. The reality is that for the majority of Williams’ period of commercial success, which came on strong and fast after signing with MGM, he was a competent professional, even as his more rural style was already a bit at odds with embryonic trends toward pop in country music.

The book really drives home Williams’ level of success as the 1950s began, plus his ability to effectively ride this good fortune at least prior to his back surgery and the disillusion of his marriage to Audrey. There are pictures of Williams in Germany (on a visit to play for US soldiers). There are a bunch from after his move to Nashville, but even more from his relentless touring around the States and even up into Canada. There is even a photo of Hank at the Copacabana in NYC.

Along the way he’s smiling quite a bit and putting his signature on quite a few items while getting his picture taken with fans. It doesn’t easily equate with the unhappy, tortured and doomed myth, but it’s well-established by now that the lives of tragic figures are never as one-dimensional as legend can make it seem. Pictures from Life’s Other Side is the fullest visual portrait of Williams we’re ever going to get, so even folks, or better said, especially folks who’ve already ponied up for the Time Life collection will want this set.

For those who love Williams’ stuff but have yet to make any significant investments in physical product, Pictures from Life’s Other Side is a safe bet, though as a fair number of songs are here in numerous versions, the best way to listen is probably a disc at a time (as is the norm for box set CDs, the discs are long). If you don’t own any Hank at all (and have a turntable) then picking up Only Mother’s Best might be the way to go. You’ll either be satisfied, or you’ll want more, which could lead you to the book and its CDs. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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