'An incredible discovery!'' trumpets the press release for this handsomely packaged 3CD set of 'lost' recordings by the 'King of country music'. Well, not exactly. These 54 songs are just the first instalment of 143 cut for 72 live radio shows Williams did in 1951 on WSM's Mother's Finest Flour Show. In fact they were originally 'discovered' during a clear out and passed on to William's daughter Jett. In her foreword for the booklet, she relates how another copy found its way into somebody else's hands, so that adulterated versions of these recordings have already surfaced. However, after an eight-year legal battle, the family estate finally won exclusive marketing rights in January 2006.
They wasted little time restoring and compiling the material, and the bang-up-to-date notes even acknowledge the death of Williams' steel guitarist Don Helms on 11th August, 2008. The 40-page booklet includes numerous photographs, posters, sheet music covers and suchlike as well as Colin Escott's detailed and illuminating notes for every song. These range from versions of well known originals that were already hits, such as Hey, Good Lookin' and Cold, Cold Heart, to a wide variety of intriguing covers that shine a light on Williams' formative influences and creative DNA. There are several 19th century 'Victorian parlour songs', African-American gospel standards, country gospel songs, hymns, Appalachian folk songs and numerous covers of songs by forebears and contemporaries of Williams. In particular, the surprising number of churchy songs distinguishes this from available collections.
The arrangements always feature Williams' band The Drifting Cowboys. Big Bill Lister provides simple bass lines and electric guitarist Sammy Pruett is used exclusively for rhythmic effect, adding a 'duk-duk-duk' to most songs. Steel guitarist Helms generally echoes and embellishes Williams' vocal melodies, while fiddler Jerry Rivers responds with his own licks while Williams most often simply strums on acoustic guitar. In the hands of lesser musicians, such unvarying arrangements might sound monotonous, but it works. If it ain't broke!
The sound quality is as good as any studio recordings already out there - better, claims Escott - and Williams' extraordinarily nasal, moaning drawl frequently sends shivers down the spine. He really swoops into the notes on the stark version of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and the ghostly waltz, At The First Fall Of Snow, epitomises his ability to inhabit another writer's storytelling, as does From Jerusalem To Jericho, itself a skilful retelling of the 'Good Samaritan' parable. Cool Water is among the finest vocal performances, while the stark Pictures From Life's Other Side - a late-19th century morality fable to which he adds a verse referencing the Korean war - demonstrates his flair for updating vintage material.
Even if much of the studio chitchat at the ends of songs is corny hokum, it shows a humorous side of Williams that his mostly morbid material gives little hint of. The ribald guffaw in the background of the tragic Pins And Needles also gives the game away, suggesting the musicians were often having a ball. --Jon Lusk
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