The Double Miracle of Mother’s Best | Hank Williams Rediscovered

He threaded the eye of the needle of his time. He sang everything that he had and he sang right at you. 

 

We remember the 1950s in the stark black and white of early TV (think I Love Lucy) or the wild hues of Technicolor (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). It is solid and etched in historic concrete. What is lost is the flexibility of happenstance—things seem frozen. If we think about it at all we tend to think of music from this time as rather chaste—Patti Page, Tony Bennett and Perry Como—but it was also the early years of R&B (termed rock and roll for the first time in 1951) with “Rocket 88” and “Sixty-Minute Man,” and the growth of both jazz and folk. Yet it is still seems a misty past that, even at its most frantic, feels rather immobile.

Historians love primary sources, in which you say “he said” as opposed to “the guy who sat down the hall from him said that he…” It is as close as you can get to that person without actually being there in the room with them. This fall we got to be “in the room” with the release of 72 15-minute shows from The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! featuring Hank Williams at his prime. Williams did the show throughout 1951, five days a week at 7:15 a.m. at the WSM studios in Nashville—the home station of the Grand Ole Opry. When he could not be at the studio due to touring, he recorded the show on acetate discs, which were the preferred method of recording at the time. These acetate discs were used as master discs to make phonograph records, but they were not made for repeated use and wore out quickly. The 72-shows were recorded, used and then shelved. This leads to the first miracle of this story.
Those discs sat on a shelf at WSM for more than 20 years. Sometime in the ’70s, the station was moving and the discs were slated to be tossed, but were rescued by the staff photographer for the Opry. He turned them over to the Williams estate sometime in the early ’80s. That, however, was just the beginning of their story.
In the early ’80s, Jett Williams, who was born just five days after her father died at 29 on New Year’s Day1953, literally appeared on the scene. Jett was the result of relationship between Frances “Bobbie” Jett and Hank, between the end of his first marriage and his short-lived second marriage. Williams acknowledged that the child was his and signed documents saying he wanted to be responsible for the child. He never lived to see her, and when she was born her mother gave her up to Hank’s mother Lillian Stone. When Lillian Stone died in 1955, young Catherine, as she was known, was given up for adoption. For nearly 30 years she did not know she was the daughter of one of the most famous performers in country music. In the 1980s, when searching for her biological parents, she discovered the true facts. For several years she had to fight through the courts to earn her birthright and acquire a portion of the estate that was legally hers.
The second miracle of this story is when a woman who never knew her biological father came in contact with the recordings that we now know as the Mother’s Best recordings. Jett Williams got to hear her father in a format that allowed for his natural warmth and humor to come out. The many hours of recordings, often done in one take (there were few do-overs), gave her, and now us, a glimpse of a year in the life of one of America’s great performers of the 20th Century. More importantly, it gave Jett Williams insight into the man she calls Dad.
I talked with Jett about the new box set and about the man who changed the course of American music in a career that lasted just 16 years.
 
I’ve been listening to the package since receiving it. It is taking quite a bit of my time [laughs], but I am glad to see it come out. 
Well, I am, too. You are right; it is an unbelievable amount of material.
How long did the original show run?
I believe it ran for the entire year 1951, five days a week. Quite a commitment, which is how we ended up with the acetates. My dad’s touring schedule was so intense that he could not be in the studio for 15 minutes every Monday through Friday. They had to put it in the can, so to speak, and we were very fortunate that they did. There are a lot of miracles with the project, first in that they were on acetate, second, that they were rescued from the Dixie dumpster and, when we were able to transfer them, that the sound was as great as it is.
The sound is incredible.
The reviewers, critics and experts say that the fidelity is good or better than the master MGM records [Williams’ record label].
It has a really rich sound.
That was an interesting process. We went in a room and they would play the acetate with different gauge needles, because you know each one was cut different and sometimes you needed a longer needle to reach down there in the groove, or a shorter needle. They would play like three different needles and everybody would write down which version they liked best. We let people’s ears do it rather than allow the computers to do it.
There were about three shows on each acetate. As I understand the process, if you flubbed a line or messed up a chord there was no going back to rerecord it.
Right. Once that needle dropped on that acetate, it was pedal to the metal; there was no going back. If you did, you would have to take and throw that acetate away, start with a new one and start all over. In fact, there was kind of a joke that a lot of people’s careers depended on if they were able to do everything on a one-cut basis. The more times you had to throw the acetate away, the more you took from the profit. If you had to do it five times then they weren’t going to use you.
As you listen, there are some mistakes on there—my dad singing the wrong songs or the band starting in the wrong key—but, you know, it is live, and I found it refreshing to see how my dad handled the situation. There is the old saying about how it is not the situation, but how you handle it.
The magic is in what happens, despite the flubs.
Yeah, to hear him make fun of himself and say, “You know, man, I’ve written so many of these songs in the same tune I just forget which one I’m singing.”
Where was he at that point in his career?
Listening to his musical voice, listening to his speaking voice, hearing him relaxed, happy, joking, humorous, intelligent… I think that was probably the best year in his career and in his life. Because you’ve got to remember, it’s 7:15 in the morning. He’s been up since maybe six to get up, get dressed, get in the car and go to the station to do the show live. He is on the money running the show and keeping it on schedule, and of course working the commercials, but once they leave that it is off the cuff and freewheeling. You really get to hear this guy Hank Williams laugh, banter, joke and tell you why he is singing this song. You can hear the love in his voice, the irritation, and you can hear the pain. That pain is apparent especially on the one where he tries to get up out of the chair and he tells the listening audience he had just had back surgery. [Williams had spina bifida.] You can hear him struggle to get out of the chair. Then as he talks you can hear him sort of moving around the microphone. I can only assume that he is trying to find a position where he can stand with the least amount of pain. The other thing we preserved on the recordings is what I call ambience-type noise—there are other people in the studio, so you will hear some movement and noise. So we kept it as pure and true-to-form as possible, and I think that comes across.
What year did they find these acetates?
As far as I know, there doesn’t seem to be a date for certain. What seems to me to be the rule of thumb was in the ’70s, when WSM was moving facilities.
I would imagine, and this borders on your story of discovering who your father was, it must have been a great gift to hear these recordings.
Here I was a child whose father died before she was born, and then to be blessed with the music and recordings he had left behind. I never thought in my wildest imagination that there would be 18 hours of him on there being so casual, telling his stories, and for me, as his daughter, hearing him say things like, “Here’s ‘On Top of Old Smoky,’ but we’ll sing it the way my grandmother used to sing it to me when she put me to bed.” These are little gems and vignettes, but on top of that, now when I hear that song it has even more special meaning for me.
I don’t think things like this happen often. This is similar to finding a famous person’s diary, but here you have the live personality in his element.
Most of what the world has been afforded before is an 8 by 10 professional photo of my dad. There is probably less that 10 minute of actual audio or video footage of him so he has been freeze-framed. There are some others like The Health and Happiness Show, but the Mother’s Best is just an incredible archive.
Why did it take so long from the acetates discovery to their appearance here?
First, when Les Leverett [Grand Ole Opry photographer] got them, he held on to them and gave them to me in the ’80s. At that time I was still in litigation with Hank Jr. [Jett’s half brother and country music superstar] and all of the publishers of my dad’s catalog. Until we resolved that, I had physical possession of all the acetates. Once we got through with the litigation, there was a company out of Texas that had gotten a bootlegged copy and they had lifted my dad’s voice off it, put a new band behind him and said they owned it. They were getting ready to do an infomercial and sell this stuff. In fact, they were getting ready to shoot it at the Ryman Auditorium, and someone called and said, “You are not going to believe what is going to happen.” So my husband, the attorney for the estate of my dad, got an injunction. At that point, Hank Jr. and I resolved our differences and joined forces as co-owners of the estate to sue this company.
In the meantime, our dad’s record company—now owned by Polydor/Polygram—jumped in and said they owned the recordings. Once again we went to court, and that took almost nine years [for us to] finally be awarded clear title to the material. We wanted to put them out, but not just put them out. We finally decided to go with Time Life. I had grown up with Time Life and I liked everything they had put together. I knew in my heart of hearts that if my dad had been alive he would have been proud of the way this was put together.
Colin Escott’s well-researched liner notes are so well done. It is a shame to call them just liner notes.
One of the mistakes we made was calling them a booklet. How many times can you write about this guy? But if you read the book it gives you a different dimension of Hank Williams. One thing I am really excited about is the Grammy nominations that are coming out tonight. I am hoping that when we wake up in the morning we will be fortunate enough to have a nomination [Editor’s note: They were, in fact, nominated for best historical album.]
It is a marathon listening to the whole project. At first I was put off by the fact that the recordings include every intro for the show, but I lined up all the intros, which appear to be the same two lines from “Lonesome Blues” followed by some patter, and was impressed to find how they could make the same thing come out so different each morning.
It includes all the openings and closings and it is a bit repetitious, but we put it out in its complete form because it would be a disservice to the project to take this out or that out.
Yes, but there is an attempt to make each of these different and special. There is one where he yodels on it (followed by the announcer Louie Buck yodeling his part in response) that I just thought amazing.
He has quite a sense of humor when you hear this and, as I said, you can hear how fast, quick-witted and intelligent he is. The thing that I love about this is it is not somebody telling you what they thought my dad thought or said. Here you can hear him for yourself.
Will there be a condensed version of this set?
I don’t know. My personal hope is, yes. I would like to see it released later. This is a major purchase. [The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! box set runs $200.] I would like to be able to share it with everybody.
It would help; the entire package is a bit of a challenge. Also, and I apologize because she is part of your extended family, but Audrey Williams’ singing in pretty awful.
My dad said it best: The only thing worse than having a wife that wants to sing is one that can’t. [laughs] Actually, she ended up being replaced by Big Bill Lester on the show. The other thing, too, was that she was part of the show, and to have lifted her off because she doesn’t sing in pitch or whatever would have been a disservice. It is a little rough. It is what it is.
I appreciate what he did. The ability to take gospel and roots and put them all together, I think, really advanced popular music. In the 20th Century there are a handful of people you can really say that about.
Absolutely. I don’t know if you know this, but I went to New York and was honored to receive the Pulitzer Prize for him. [Editor’s note: He received a special citation in April 2010.] Actually, when I went to get the Pulitzer, there was a guy sitting at my table who was on the committee and he told me that the Mother’s Best recordings were instrumental in getting the award. He had gotten a copy of it and was so blown away by it that he got copies for the other committee members. It brought [Hank] back up to the forefront and he was recognized for his workmanship. If you listen to something like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” he is up there with the greatest American poets.
Do you think that somebody like your father could exist today? Or was he of his time and element?
I think that he threaded the eye of the needle of his time. He had the God-given talent that, if he was born in the 21st century, yes, he would exist because he had the talent: He was creating, not following. To me, his songwriting didn’t have just one style. If you look at the structures of his songs, he was writing up-tempo, ballads and waltzes. He was singing everything from songs by other artists to pop songs and standards. He was one of those people who could sing the phone book and get away with it. He had that voice and delivery where he made you feel… Someone said that he was a gut singer and I really like that description. He sang everything that he had and he sang right at you.
And he did it all before the age of 29.
Yes, and he did it all before the time when we had any media besides a battery-operated radio and maybe a local newspaper. And when you put in that era when it was basically word of mouth, a radio and to be able to change the face of music, not just country but music overall.
You didn’t know you were Hank Williams’ daughter until the 1980s.
Yes, that’s right. I went on a search. I knew I was adopted, and I wanted to find out who my real parents were. There were no guarantees as an adopted child to find out these things.
Not only did I find out that my dad was Hank Williams, but that he wanted me. He had signed all the legal papers three months before I was born. He just didn’t count on dying at 29. But I found out he signed the legal papers and they were notarized, saying, “This is my baby and I’m taking my baby.” That is when I found out that something had gone terribly wrong, because his wishes were not carried out the way he wanted them to be. That is why I wanted to tell the world about him, and whatever happened from there, so be it.
What happened to your biological mom?
By the time I found out what had happened she had passed away, too. Her name was Bobbie Jett and she was from Nashville, and when I was born she let my grandmother, Hank Williams’ mother, adopt me.
If you don’t mind me saying, it has all the makings of a country song.
It truly does. It is a heartbreaker. I know people who say if I had made it up it wouldn’t be this good.
I heard that there are film projects.
There are two films. One is an independent film called The Last Ride; it will be coming out in 2011. My husband and I were given a private viewing of this movie. I was absolutely blown away by it, and I think when it is released next year, people will be absolutely thrilled to death with the movie. I was really surprised because I had no clue of what I was going to see. The Last Ride is the last 72 hours of my dad’s life.
The other movie that we are working on we had signed with a major motion picture company in Hollywood to put out a major-screen presentation. I think these two will compliment each other. | Jim Dunn
 
For more information or to purchase The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! visit www.hankwilliamsmothersbest.com/
 
Photo captions, from top:
1. Hank Williams in the WSM studios in the early 1950s.
2. Jett Williams and her husband, Keith Adkinson (left) and Time Life Senior VP Mike Jason (right) holding one of the original acetates.
3. Jett Williams with her mother, Lillian Stone, in the mid-’50s.
About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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