Let’s establish what is more or less fact right up front: Hank Williams is the wellspring from which all modern country music has emerged. He defined its sound (imploring, nasally pinched Southern vocals echoed by keening steel guitar), its subject matter (betrayed love, jubilant love, spiritual love), and its style (flashy faux-cowboy suits and humble modesty as prevailing stage presence). Over the course of a scant five years, from 1947 (with the electrifyingly funny, sexy ”Move It On Over”) to 1952 (with ”I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”), he released 33 Billboard-charting hit singles that formed the corpus of contemporary country. Then he left his own corpus in the backseat of a Cadillac on New Year’s Day, 1953, on the way to a gig, dead from heart failure at the age of 29.
Now then. It is the intention of The Complete Hank Williams — 10 CDs, 225 songs, 53 of them previously unissued, in a handsome package with frequently superlative, reported liner notes by Williams scholar Colin Escott — to convince us that Williams’ genius extended beyond his hits and to reintroduce this popular-music forefather to a late-’90s country audience that rarely if ever hears his music played on country radio. Yet despite all the vinegary vigor and unique inspiration Williams’ best music contains in abundance, I suspect that anyone plowing through this box of music, even with the distraction of the included ”eight full-color postcards featuring previously unpublished folk art,” will ultimately be left a little bored and not a little put off by its revered subject. Which is pretty interesting, when you think about it.
Because despite being a pop-culture titan and rightly dubbed ”father of country music,” Hank Williams was possibly the least likable — least warm and sympathetic — figure in modern music. Reeking of self-pity, he wrote and sang some of the greatest woe-is-me music of the century, including ”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” ”Nobody’s Lonesome for Me,” ”You Win Again,” and what I would argue is his single greatest composition and performance, 1951’s ”I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” closely accompanied by the secret hero of so many of Williams’ records, the miraculously adroit steel guitar player Don Helms.
Brimming with an anger that regularly spilled over into misogyny, Williams was also a master of spite, as the deceptively jaunty ”You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)” and the chillingly blunt ”You Caused It All by Telling Lies” reflect. We’ve all known men like Williams without his talent — the fellows with sour smiles and vicious eyes, scrawny-chested guys who’ll try to drop you when your back is turned. (Escott quotes guitarist Harold Bradley as saying that Williams’ music ”came from a mean bottle.”)
The ability to transmute selfish pettiness into transfixing music is a characteristic of first-rate artists in every area of endeavor, but The Complete Hank Williams makes you doubt the value of completism by including a vast amount of Williams’ maudlin, mediocre, and often hypocritically moralistic material. The numerous singles he recorded as Luke the Drifter — half-sung, half-spoken cautionary tales laced with religious imagery — are now beneath notice except as quaint curiosities.
Williams cut some gleamingly good God-fearing tunes, such as ”Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” and a spine-tingling ”I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life).” And while ”I Saw the Light” holds up as country gospel, Escott’s notes scotch the impression that the song, now commonly considered a musical beacon of spiritual soul-searching, was any such thing, revealing that the light of the title was actually some airport illumination that Williams’ mother, Lillie, saw one night while driving her stuporously drunk son home from an Alabama club date.
The four CDs here that comprise Williams’ MGM recordings, the hits and some B sides, are invaluable. The rest is extremely uneven and repetitious — and in the case of some of the radio broadcasts, so poorly recorded as to be not worth inclusion. But just when you’re ready to consign the rest of the box to a work of noble scholarship you’ll never really enjoy, along comes the 10th CD, featuring Williams in contexts as varied as Armed Forces Radio and TV’s The Kate Smith Evening Hour, which contain a lot of hot stuff. When Hank was on, he sure could be a pistol.
Ultimately, The Complete Hank Williams is less a document than a documentary: the nonfiction story of a prodigiously gifted falling-down alcoholic, always at odds with his wife, Audrey (whom he married and divorced twice), the industry he helped spawn (if the 29-year-old, prime hit-making Hank were time-traveled into 1998 Nashville, after a couple of belts his most instinctive gesture would probably be to yank on Mindy McCready’s belly-button ring), and most crucially, himself. There’s little doubt that the guy who sang ”There’s a Tear in My Beer” had a hole in his soul. B+