Fred Rose provided Williams's big break. Rose, the co-owner of Acuff-Rose Publishing with Nashville pioneer Roy Acuff, championed Williams to the small Sterling imprint, which signed him in 1946. Williams cut his first songs for the company late that year and early the next, and the results neatly symbolized the elements at war within the bony savant. "Calling You," the first track on Complete, is a string-heavy ditty in which the hell-raiser piously wonders, "When you stray from the fold / And there's trouble in your soul / Can't you hear the blessed Savior calling you?" But such remorse doesn't keep Williams on the straight and narrow: "My Love for You (Has Turned to Hate)" is mighty short on Christian forgiveness ("Don't come back now / It is too late / My love for you has turned to hate"), while the exuberant, irresistible "Honky Tonkin'" casts Hank as eager adulterer ("When you and your baby / Have a fallin' out / Call me up, sweet mama / And we'll go steppin' out").

Musically these tunes aren't especially original: According to Escott, the melody of "Calling You" bears more than a passing resemblance to a J.M. Henson hymn, and "Pan American," a paean to a train Williams knew from his youth, isn't exactly dissimilar from "Wabash Cannonball." Likewise the arrangements built on simple clip-clop rhythms, a strummed acoustic guitar and tasty filigree provided by electric guitars, steel guitars or fiddles don't set new standards for the style. But what makes them stand out is Williams's sure feel for hooks, his deceptively versatile, straight-through-the-nose vocal delivery and his peerless ability as a phrasemaker. From "Hey, Good Lookin'" to "Your Cheatin' Heart," the contemporary lexicon is filled with expressions that passed Williams's lips first.

After Williams moved from Sterling to MGM, "Move It On Over," a bouncy tale from the doghouse that's still a bar-band staple, became his first legitimate chart smash, and its success eventually led to his being added to the cast of Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio variety program. But he was capable of hitting far more than that one note. Also laid down during 1947 were "I Saw the Light," a gospel spine-tingler with just a hint of creepiness ("Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light!"), the rowdy "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" and "Mansion on the Hill," an exercise in narrative writing and gothic imagery that would have done Daphne du Maurier proud. As for "Lovesick Blues," the platter that made Williams a star, it's a cover of a 1922 show tune that's highlighted by some of the finest country yodeling ever caught by a microphone.

Of course any true Williams fan already knows these numbers backward and forward, and the same can be said about "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Lost Highway," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Cold, Cold Heart," "I'll Never Get out of This World Alive" and "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)," all of which appear on Complete in pristine, remastered form. But the project's chronological construction allows even longtime acolytes to hear tracks with fresh ears. The four songs on disc two in which Hank duets with Audrey say all that needs to be said about their discordant relationship, as author Escott suggests; she's actually louder than he is and makes no apparent effort to harmonize with him. "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy" can't be described as seminal, either -- it's a minor bit of cornpone -- but Williams's fruity, throbbing vocals sell both of the versions that appear on the second CD. Even more striking is "The Funeral," a recitation of a poem from 1909 that Williams issued under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter. The words are patronizingly bigoted: Williams laments the death of "a little colored kid" with "curly hair" and "protruding lips" whose service is overseen by a preacher whose "Ethiopian face showed the wisdom and ignorance of a crushed, undying race." But damn it if the singer, backed by a melodramatic organ, isn't able to make the most out of every ounce of sap.

Complete discs five through ten are not nearly as seamless as those that precede them, but they sport more than their share of treasures. Included is a trio of primitive recordings of Hank as a teenager (he renders "Happy Rovin' Cowboy," "Freight Train Blues" and "San Antonio Rose"); a strong batch of demos made in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the late '40s; some examples of his song-pitching techniques; and, at the conclusion of the final CD, "The Apology," a 1951 tape in which Williams explains to an audience in Washington, D.C., why he was unable to appear at a show scheduled to take place there. In it, he cites a painful operation he had recently endured, but he fails to mention that he fired a shot at Audrey while packing for the trip, prompting her to leave him for the final time.

The year or so after Williams recorded this mea culpa was just as tumultuous. He was in agony from his back problems, and the combination of booze and the painkillers he consumed to deal with his ailment made him even crazier than usual. The Grand Ole Opry, which had made him part of the country-music elite in 1949 on the heels of "Lovesick Blues," unceremoniously canned him three years later because of his unreliability. Moreover, he couldn't get Audrey out of his head. He carried on as usual, impregnating a woman named Bobbie Jett (she gave birth to a daughter, Cathy "Jett" Williams, two days after he was buried) and marrying the strikingly gorgeous Billie Jean Jones Eshliman that fall. (Eshliman left country singer Faron Young for Hank and subsequently married Johnny "North to Alaska" Horton, who made her a widow for the second time when he died in a 1960 car accident.)

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