Hank Williams’ Pictures from Life’s Other Side isn’t your ordinary box set. The collection from BMG is essentially a big, handsome coffee table book with six CDs as musical accompaniment. But when the subject is Hank Williams, the music can’t be an afterthought – and it certainly isn’t here. The discs in this lavish tome present all 144 tracks recorded by Williams for his 1951 radio show sponsored by the Mother’s Best flour company.
After gaining a considerable audience as part of the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show, Alabama native Williams began headlining in 1949 for the even more renowned Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The Opry home of WSM was anxious to enlist the troubadour/bandleader to host his own radio program for the station. Due to his heavy live performance schedule, however, he couldn’t be in Music City to host each of the 15-minute daily broadcasts live. The solution was for Williams to pre-record the 72 broadcasts (sponsored by Mother’s Best) for transcription discs, using the same equipment as his commercial recordings of the day. It was standard practice to discard the discs after airing, but fortuitously, Hank’s were saved before hitting the trash heap. Their discovery more than doubled the number of Williams’ known recordings. (He died on January 1, 1953 – less than two years after these captivating performances were preserved – at the tragically young age of 29.)
On the radio, Hank reinterpreted many of his classic songs including his breakthrough “Move It on Over” and “Lovesick Blues,” which earned him a spot on the Opry roster. (Williams was ousted from the Opry in 1952 and stripped of his membership.) A snippet of the latter, penned not by Hank but by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills, opens the first disc of this collection. His own standards feature prominently, of course, including “I Saw the Light,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Hank also surveys others’ hits (Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Scotty Wiseman’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”), traditional folk tunes (“On Top of Old Smokey,” “Sally Goodin”), and sacred material (“Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “When God Dips His Love in My Heart”). Williams was accompanied for these sessions by the Drifting Cowboys lineup of Don Helms (steel guitar/harmony vocals), Jerry Rivers (fiddle/harmony vocals), Sammy Pruett (electric guitar), Howard Watts a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater (bass/harmony vocals), and occasionally, his first wife Audrey Williams.
Some of the songs here are heard more than once, but Hank never sang them exactly the same way twice. Most excitingly, Williams performed dozens of songs on the radio that he never attempted in the commercial studio. A full 37 of these rarities – including many of the aforementioned covers plus others like Moon Mullican’s “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” Fred Rose’s “Pins and Needles (In My Heart),” and T. Texas Tyler’s “Deck of Cards,” later a hit for future game show host Wink Martindale – premiere on vinyl on a companion 3-LP “highlights” release, Only Mother’s Best.
Pictures from Life’s Other Side isn’t the first collection to collect these warm, intimate recordings on CD. Most notably, they were issued in comprehensive form by Time-Life on the 16-disc box set The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! in 2010. Whereas that release presented all of the radio shows in uncut form with the show’s weekly openings and closings, performances by guest singers, and instrumental spots, Pictures from Life’s Other Side is the first release to collect the entirety of Hank’s extraordinary performances outside the context of the original radio programs. While completists may prefer the full radio shows, this set is all Hank, all the time, adding up to an alternative history of his (all-too-short-lived) halcyon days. (Some dialogue has been retained where necessary.)
The book, needless to say, is perfect to peruse while listening. With a sewn-in ribbon bookmark for easy use, it’s filled with striking photos (mostly black-and-white or tinted) of the artist, whose intensity blazes through each page, in a variety of settings and locales. The pictorial journey takes readers from Williams’ earliest days to his final ones. Even when smiling or surrounded by friends, fans, bandmates, his mother, and his wife, his turned-up mouth often looks as if it’s holding something back. Still, satisfaction, confidence, pride, determination, pain, and even yearning are evident in his chiseled features throughout this treasure trove of photography. Helpful captions identify Hank’s compatriots in each vintage shot. Many other favorite artists merit a glimpse such as Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff, and Red Foley on a European tour of military bases; Chet Atkins, Cowboy Copas and Ernest Tubb; and Hank Williams Jr. at home. The photos from his final year of living, 1952, even seem to reveal the ravages that alcohol abuse had taken on the singer. The last-known photo of Hank, taken three days before his death in Montgomery, Alabama, is included here. Many shots evoke what might have been kept in a personal scrapbook, while other, familiar professional photos are also included. However, these well-known images have been restored from the original negatives when possible for added clarity.
Much as the images have been restored, the music here has been newly remastered by Michael Graves. Along with this set’s producer, Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings, Graves earned the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for Williams’ equally essential The Garden Spot Programs, 1950 compilation in 2015. Co-author (with associate producer Scott B. Bomar) Colin Escott provides a five-page essay touching on numerous aspects of Hank’s life, death, and the Mother’s Best recordings. Hank’s daughter Jett Williams has also provided a new introduction. The discs themselves are housed in slots within two cardboard foldouts, one at the beginning of the book and one at its end. (Be careful with the discs; the slots are so tight that it may prove difficult to return the CDs to their homes.)
This 270+-page hardcover book and musical accompaniment is a vivid tribute to the life of one of country music’s legends and American popular song’s most significant personages. Thanks both to the casual, revealing nature of the radio broadcasts and the candid photography, it paints a powerful picture of a talent who died too young but has never really left us, after all.