For the sheer volume of “new” posthumously released material, few artists can rival Hank Williams, whose best-known sides seem to be repackaged every couple of years to cash in on some just-unearthed demo recordings. But the latest addition to Hank Sr.‘s catalogue, The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings… Plus!, is something particularly special. Daunting for its enormous scope and awe-inspiring for the care and detail shown in its extraordinary packaging, this collection is invaluable as both a historical document and as an expansion of Williams’s already storied legacy.
Because so much of his artistry is inseparable from how he established archetypes not just for country music, but for popular music in general, it’s often easy to view Williams as more of a myth than an actual flesh-and-blood performer. One of the primary selling points for The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings, then, is that it provides an exceedingly rare glimpse at Williams at his most candid. Sponsored by Mother’s Best flour products, this series of daily, quarter-hour radio shows teem and bristle with the kind of spontaneity that is rarely captured in studio recordings.
To that end, the snarky ad-libs that Williams manages to pack into each 15-minute installment showcase his quick wit and his distinctive, high-pitched cackle of a laugh. No one in the studio was safe from Williams’s one-liners, as he routinely pokes fun at his bandmates’ haircuts, the constant requirement of plugging Mother’s Best products, and even his own mistakes in his musicianship. Williams is perhaps most often remembered as a tragic, hard-living figure, but The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings repositions him as a self-deprecating smartass with incredible business acumen. Long before artists were derided for “selling out,” Williams proved that it was possible to shill for products without selling one’s soul. He could poke a little bit of fun at the process of making long-form commercials for flour (for proof of how seriously Williams took the bake-sale aspect of this gig, look no further than the promo photo on the first page of the collection’s book to see Williams’s shit-eating grin), and doing so meant a guaranteed block of airtime in an era when few things had more influence than radio.
It’s just more evidence that Williams knew exactly what he was doing in terms of defining himself not just as a singular artist, but as a brand. Each Mother’s Best episode introduces Williams as “That ‘Lovesick Blues’ Boy” before launching into a brief rendition of that signature hit. Whether he performed early versions of songs that would become staples of his rich catalogue, covers of other writers’ best material (a version of Roy Acuff’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” is a particular highlight), or familiar gospel standards, Williams always brought an undercurrent of lived-in blues to his arrangements and his singing on the Mother’s Best programs. That the remastered recordings leave all of the pops and cracks in the dubs only heightens the immediacy of Williams’s performances and makes the anthology sound all the more authentic as a time capsule.
What works best about the collection is that the brevity of each episode lends itself both to casual listening and to repeated, more in-depth exploration. That said, The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings spans some 18 hours in its entirety, and the repetitive structure of the individual episodes isn’t made for sustained listens. What worked well as a serial program becomes rote and tiresome after a few consecutive spins. By disc three of the set, the rhythms of each program are predictable—beginning with “Cousin” Louie Buck’s introduction, followed by one song of Williams’s trademark country blues, either an instrumental number from the Drifting Cowboys or a performance by Williams’s tone-deaf wife Audrey, then a gospel standard, and finally a closing rendition of the Mother’s Best jingle.
There’s a healthy bit of irony at work, then, in hearing Williams and Buck boast of the freshness of Mother’s Best flour products when the machinations of their program quickly grow stale. But taken as a piecemeal set, The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings makes for essential listening not just for Williams completists, but for anyone with a vested interest in the evolution of popular music as an art form. The collection stands as a testament not only to Williams at the height of his powers, but to how one can find a balance between commerce and art.