For many music fans, the late Hank Williams' legacy resides in songs that have been covered a hundred times over by country, pop and rock performers. It's hard to argue against the potency of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die" or "Your Cheatin' Heart." However, even Williams admitted he really only had two songs, a fast one and a slow one, and when asked what kinds of songs he liked, he would reply, "vanilla," meaning simple ones.
Williams was right, too. His six years of recorded output revealed very slight melodic variations on a few simple song models, and his lyricism, as striking as it could be, was redundant in form and subject matter. The truth is his special gift was not so much in songwriting as in performance, where he was able to expand these simple songs into soul-wrenching experiences that have no equal in popular music.
Williams' dramatic gifts as a singer are brilliantly highlighted in a new album, "Just Me and My Guitar" (CMF-006), released by the Country Music Foundation. The record consists of 12 recently discovered demonstration records made by Williams with only guitar accompaniment. Although five of these demos, including classics like "Jambalaya" and "I Can't Help It," were later commercially recorded, seven others were not. Despite their demo status, all 12 are performed as if Williams' life were at stake.
Without the studio polish applied by producer Fred Rose or the adroit backings of the Drifting Cowboys, Williams' performances here achieve a kind of audio ve'rite'. In this simplest and starkest of musical settings, Williams' mournful singing seems transformed into an emotional tool that cuts to the heart of human experience as sharply and plainly as a surgeon's scalpel. In the forlorn "Lost on the River," the way his nasal whine holds onto syllables and then lets them slowly die expresses the fading hopes of a doomed man better than clever words could.
"Just Me and My Guitar" is a revelation not only for presenting Williams' music in a riveting new context but also for reminding us that country music remains a simple art of sharing emotional truths directly and forcefully. On the rare "The Log Train," Williams unfolds a story about his father that is sung with such unadorned conviction that it seems archaic. Yet this song, like all of "Just Me and My Guitar," is both spellbinding and nerve-racking because Williams stood naked with his feelings and trusted that we would recognize them as ours.
A different side of Hank Williams is presented in "On the Air" (Polydor 827 531-1), the follow-up to 1984's "Rare Takes and Radio Cuts." "On the Air" offers 12 more of his previously unissued radio show performances from 1949 to 1952. Two of these live performances, "I Can't Help It" and "Baby, We're Really in Love," were recorded at the Grand Ole Opry, while most of the others are from the "Health and Happiness" radio series.
Whether it's because he's backed by his Drifting Cowboys or because he's singing for a live audience, Williams' performances here are altogether more upbeat in feeling than those on "Just Me and My Guitar." The version of "I Can't Help It" from "On the Air" features a twin fiddle attack and a more aggressive vocal that tend to lift the song past the outright despair of the demo version. With superb vocal and instrumental performances and good sound quality, "On the Air" underscores the vitality and charged atmosphere that Williams, the commercial performer, brought to country music in the early '50s.
It's hard to imagine a more potent introduction to Williams' music than "Just Me and My Guitar." However, Williams fans will now be able to get everything he ever recorded in a series of double-LP sets from Polydor. These long overdue releases, which present Williams' studio recordings in chronological order, remastered in undubbed mono, will also offer most of his nonstudio recordings. The first two releases are "I Ain't Got Nothin' But Time" (Polydor 825 548-1) and "Love Sick Blues" (Polydor 825 551-1).