Hank Williams

Unearthing the Lost Hank Williams

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 05.21.14 in Features

The Garden Spot Programs, 1950

Hank Williams

More than a decade ago, while on a crate-digging excursion that spanned four states, Dallas record collector George Gimarc found piles of old 16-inch radio transcriptions in the back of an Oklahoma florist’s shop. He doesn’t remember exactly when, or in what town, but he bought them and brought them home, where until recently they sat unplayed with all his other transcriptions. “I have hundreds of thousands of records around my house to listen to, and I didn’t have anything to play the transcriptions on,” he laughs. “They require special equipment, and my Presto Transcription Turntable had no cartridge and the tone arm wasn’t balanced.” Finally, an engineer friend helped him fix it and Gimarc threw on some discs marked “Hank Williams KSIB.” He was expecting to hear nothing but the Drifting Cowboy singing a few songs, which by itself would have been a great discovery, especially if they included songs Williams hadn’t recorded for MGM. “But then the jingle came on,” he says, “and I just said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, these are live performances of Hank Williams…’”

Indeed they were. As it turned out, Williams scholars didn’t even know he’d done these transcriptions, which have just been released commercially as Hank Williams: The Garden Spot Programs, 1950. They join another set of recently-issued, long-believed-lost transcriptions by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, entitled Riding Your Way/The Lost Transcriptions for Tiffany Music, 1946-1947.

In the beginning, radio was a live-music medium, and musicians performed in each station’s studio. By the 1950s, most stations had switched over to the now-familiar format of disc jockeys playing records, but for a brief period in between, they relied on “transcriptions” — recordings that simulated live shows and were not available commercially. That’s where both these albums of long-lost music come from.

via YouTube

Radio transcriptions, which had been around since the 1930s, rose to prominence during World War II, when they were shipped to armed forces stations overseas to entertain the troops. There were several different varieties, but they always contained the makings of complete programs, running 15 or 30 minutes in length. The most unusual ones contained live performances, generally introduced by a host, with the artist chatting in between; these were timed so that a live local deejay could break into the show to pitch the product sponsoring the session. The Williams transcriptions, for the Texas gardening company Naughton Farms, are this type. A more common type of transcription featured newly recorded music that stood by itself, and was shipped to radio stations with a script to be read between songs by local deejays at the host station. This kept alive the illusion that listeners were hearing a live show, and that’s the form the Wills transcriptions take.

‘ Williams scholars were surprised to learn of the very existence of the transcriptions, let alone the fact that they had survived for nearly six-and-a-half decades.’

According to Colin Escott, the author of two books about Williams and the producer of the Garden Spot set, Williams scholars were surprised to learn of the very existence of the transcriptions, let alone the fact that they had survived for nearly six-and-a-half decades (the 16-inch transcriptions are coated with acetate, which broke down after just a few plays, which is why they’re so rare today). Williams is believed to have recorded the spots during the second week of January 1950 at Castle Recording Laboratories in Nashville’s Tulane Hotel, then the only studio in town. His sponsor, Naughton Farms, was one of the nation’s largest plant nurseries, and bought airtime on hundreds of small-town radio stations such as KSIB in Creston, Iowa. For the broadcast in Creston, they were interspersed with live shows on KSIB featuring regional talent, so it was as if Williams was right there in the studio with the locals. There were apparently a dozen Garden Spot programs in all, with Williams featured in four of them.

According to Escott, transcriptions had a twofold importance for country artists: “They could knock out five or six 15-minute shows in a couple hours and collect an easy paycheck. And they got the artist and his or her songs on early morning radio on local stations at a time when ‘live’ radio rather than records was still the norm,” he says. Williams’s MGM singles likely weren’t played on KSIB, but country fans there knew him because of these transcriptions.

On them, Williams is introduced by Opry announcer Grant Turner of WSM-Nashville, a fiddle tune comes around the halfway point and a fiddle instrumental of “Oh!—Susanna” (a song that would have had special meaning for an Alabama boy like Williams) closes things out. Hearing those components four times each in the course of 40 minutes makes for a lot of repetition, but what comes in between is audio from heaven for postwar country fans. Williams is in exceptionally strong voice throughout, and the material includes new versions of songs he’d already released as singles — among them, “Lovesick Blues” and “Mind Your Own Business” — that have a radically different sound. That’s because he’s not backed here by his Drifting Cowboys, as he was on his commercial releases. Don Helms, Williams’s regular steel guitarist, had a lean attack that cut like a hot knife through butter. The uncredited steel player here is super busy by comparison, jabbing insistently rather than slashing periodically, on two versions of “Lovesick Blues” (the first of which is more aggressive and has a more Hawaiian feel). On “Mind Your Own Business,” Williams adds a couple seemingly-improvised lines that differ from those in the studio version. The other highlight is a take on the perennially popular Southern hymn “Farther Along,” which Williams never recorded for MGM. Williams liked to end his shows with funereal songs about God, mother or death, and this is one of his most deeply-felt such performances.

‘Hank Williams liked to end his shows with funereal songs about God, mother or death, and this is one of his most deeply-felt such performances.’

The Wills set is nowhere near as earnest as the Williams, and its back story isn’t quite as exotic. During his California years, Texas bandleader Wills formed the Tiffany Company with two business partners specifically to syndicate transcriptions of himself with his Texas Playboys. In 1946 and ’47 they made more than 450 recordings, including more than 360 completed tracks. Two-hundred-and-twenty of those tracks were syndicated to about 30 radio stations between 1947 and 1949. The transcriptions were bringing in good money, and they enabled Wills to stay in touch with his original Texas-Oklahoma constituency while he was out on the coast. Then, Wills discovered that one of his partners was bootlegging the discs, to compete with those who’d bought exclusive rights to the transcriptions. Tiffany soon shuttered, and this wealth of recordings went unheard again until the 1980s, when Kaleidoscope, a small Bay Area indie, began reissuing them. They were believed to be all the Tiffanys that survived, until Warner Music Group/Rhino tape librarian Mike Johnson discovered 50 more sides in the vaults, and it’s those recordings that comprise Riding Your Way.

Western swing is nothing if not celebratory, and the Tiffanys capture Wills and band at their hottest; they are so tight they sound loose as they charge through programs which take tunes from country, pop, blues, folk, gospel and jazz and refashion them all into rhythmic swing-band sounds played on stringed country instruments. Wills would always take the band into the studios on a Monday, at the end of a tour, and they’d dash most of the music out in one take because they’d been playing these songs together on the road and had them down cold. Cary Ginell’s liner notes quote steel guitarist Herb Remington: “We’d come in from a tour and sometimes we’d been gone for one or two months, and immediately we’d hit the recording studio. He did not let us go home…Bob knew that we played our best when we were loose and had just come off a tour…So we were cross-eyed tired, mad and hungry when we went up to these sessions, but we were loose, we were red-hot, and our memories were sharp…We knew that material so well that we just wanted to get it over with and get the hell out of there.”

‘Could there be more of this stuff out there that we don’t know about?’

You can hear that fire in these recordings. The ensemble plays as one huge rhythm machine, while the spotlight moves from lead singer Tommy Duncan relaxed, burnished pop stylings to the distorted, rough ‘n’ ready electric guitar of Junior Barnard, one of the unsung progenitors of rock guitar. The set opens with R&B pianist Cecil Gant’s “Put Another Chair at the Table,” and soon jumps into the tongue-in-cheek pioneer tale “The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along,” a slowed-down “Yellow Rose of Texas,” then a shouting “Columbus Stockade Blues.” On the second disc, the Playboys romp through the traditional “Soldier’s Joy” at astonishing speed, play the lyric uneasiness of “Have I Stayed Away Too Long” off against a happy band sound, swing the silly pop of “Margie,” milk the crying-in-your-beer “My Wild Irish Rose” for all it’s worth, and understate “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle” so severely that the song seems to almost disappear before your very ears — and these all come one right after the other, bang bang bang, as all the while Wills is interjecting his jive-talk, ah-ha‘ing behind the vocalist, calling out soloists and generally making a first class goofball of himself while the music threatens to swing off its hinges but never quite does.

Sets like these are equally satisfying for casual listeners as well as collectors (the Williams album was available on vinyl for Record Store Day), and they also raise a tantalizing question: Could there be more of this stuff out there that we don’t know about? As Jett Williams, Hank’s daughter, declares, “I sure hope so. I hope people keep finding it.”