Hank Williams – The Complete Mother’s Best Collection…Plus! (Time Life/WEA)
By Andrew Hamlin.
Mother’s Best Flour isn’t sold by that name anymore. Cousin Louie Buck, the announcer for each one of these rediscovered radio shows, died in 1971, eight days after his 61st birthday, and that seems to be all we know about him. Hank Williams, singing for the radio in 1951, calls him “Luigi” more often than not at the top of every Mother’s Best show. At least, he did for these ones that were pre-recorded and almost-accidentally ended up recorded for posterity. Cousin Louie Buck says “sifted through silk” a lot. That was one of Mother’s Best Flour’s promises to the (presumably) housewives who baked with it. “Washed with water, washed with air, and it’s self-rising, too!”
The new box set boasts of “142 rare performances,” over its 15 CDs (plus a DVD of Jett Williams with some of the musicians) but it doesn’t tell you that includes whole hell of a lot of Mother’s Best Flour plugging, from Buck, from Williams; and the musicians chuckling at in-jokes, laughter, ripostes bouncing warmly amongst men, against
the nervous awareness of rolling tape.
Like real life, one never knows what shall come. Audrey Williams, Hank’s wife, shows up in the early proceedings. The best I can say for Audrey Williams’ singing is “earnest” and “naïve,” but that doesn’t make her much easier down the earholes.
So what’s best from this huge stretch? First Williams seems like a limited singer, with yodel-fathered leaps up intervals that he likes, so he sticks with them. Over the long stretch you grasp his odd unprepossessing power. The microphone likes him, and so does your mind. Yodel-leaps and all, he’s your best friend, laughing at his own jokes as surely as the men with instruments do, and you’re waiting for him to crack you up, expecting that favor and getting it.
Each set must include a gospel song, and I am no Christian, but as Amanda Petrusich puts it, talking about the gospel folk singer Washington Phillips, “there’s an assuredness that animates the best gospel music, a bottomless self-possession.” When Williams sings “How can you…” in his liquid tone and that band shoots back sweetly, “refuse him now?” they’re talking about Jesus with that total confidence.
He turns “On Top Of Old Smokey” into gospel, “Thirty Pieces Of Silver,” the price paid for Jesus, and if anyone clicks that they’re laying into blood money on a show shilling to make money, nobody lets on. Judas begs for mercy. We know how that one ends.
Williams often extends a few kind words to the shut-ins, always calling them that, folks who can’t get out, not even to church. And he dedicates songs to them. He could rail, flail, end up in jail, and come to the verge of collapse—all that before the high life killed him, of course. But he could comfort. He could bring you to him. He was sifted in silk.