You bought 1998's 10-CD The Complete Hank Williams and thought that was all the Hank you'd ever need. Sorry, buckaroo; you're in for a big surprise. On the 3-CD Unreleased Recordings are 54 of 143 songs that Williams performed on Nashville's WSM during his daily 7:15am radio show in 1951. Recorded on acetates, which could only be played a few times before wearing out, the complete shows were 15 minutes long and sponsored by Mother's Best Flour. Prerecording allowed the audience to think Williams was in the studio when he was actually out on the road, and the seemingly temporary nature of the endeavor gave the singer unusual freedom. This first sampling – the complete treasure trove is promised for the future – is a mix of popular and obscure, original songs commingling with covers you might not expect. Material ranges from tunes of the day ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Cherokee Boogie," "Cool Water") to deep gospel standards and surprising versions of songs he's remembered for, including the first known recording of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)." One of the most surprising facets about these recordings is their clarity; Williams' smooth, troubled voice has never been captured with this much warmth and presence. In 1951, he was at the top of his popularity, and this is a glorious glimpse into why that was, given that he's simply singing about what was on his mind that day. Numerous photos and an enlightening essay by Williams biographer Colin Escott make the set an even better treat. Anyone familiar with the Health and Happiness Shows, radio transcriptions from 1949 that were released in their entirety on a two-disc set in 1993, will have an idea of what to expect from The Unreleased Recordings. One can only speculate why the Mother's Best find wouldn't be released in the same fashion, but that's a minor quibble with what's an extraordinary trip back to 1951 with country music's first superstar.
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