I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin/Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night/Praise the Lord, I saw the light...
Though Hank Williams is often remembered today as much for his hellraising ways as for his venerable songbook - a remarkable one that crossed genre lines via such stone-cold standards as "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You") - he was brought up in the church and its music stayed with him for the entirety of his too-short life. In 1950, he even took on the identity of "Luke the Drifter" to record religious material for his then-label home, MGM Records. This Friday, March 11, BMG will revisit Williams' gospel discography for a moving new release. I'm Gonna Sing: The Mother's Best Gospel Recordings is a 2-CD or 3-LP collection of 40 performances from Hank's 1951 radio show sponsored by the Mother's Best flour company.
After growing his audience as part of the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show, Alabama native Williams began headlining in 1949 for the renowned Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville. The Opry home of WSM was anxious to enlist the troubadour/bandleader to host his own radio program for the station. Due to Williams' busy 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 Mother's Best broadcasts for transcription discs, using the same high-quality 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 performances were recorded - at the tragically young age of 29.)
Time-Life first collected the complete Mother's Best shows as a 15-CD/1-DVD box set in 2010 (re-pressed sans its ornate packaging in 2016). Since then, BMG has been re-presenting them in streamlined, more digestible presentations on both CD and vinyl with greatly upgraded sound courtesy of mastering engineer Michael Graves, a Grammy winner for his work on The Garden Spot Programs, 1950, which collected Williams' performances from that earlier radio show.
Joining Graves for I'm Gonna Sing are his fellow Garden Spot Grammy winners, producer Cheryl Pawelski and author Colin Escott. The latter has provided indispensable historical information about the origins of these 40 tracks comprising pre-20th century hymns, sacred songs, a handful of African-American spirituals, more recent gospel material penned by the esteemed likes of Fred Rose, and his own original songs in a religious vein. Typically for the era, these songs would be performed at the end of each broadcast and, as Escott points out, dedicated to "sick and shut-in friends."
Though many songs celebrated salvation, God, and Heaven, Williams didn't shy away from dark material such as "The Pale Horse and His Rider," "Searching for a Soldier's Grave," and "When the Fire Comes Down," tapping into a deep well of pain as well as fervor. His own now-standard "I Saw the Light" is among the most recognizable of the tracks included here, as powerful today as when he first recorded it.
Many of these songs weren't recorded by Williams for a commercial record release, making their appearance here even more valuable; there are other key differences, too, between these radio takes and Williams' commercial recordings including the presence on these songs of harmony vocals by fiddler Jerry Rivers, bassist Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater), and steel guitarist Don Helms. Sammy Pruett also accompanied Williams on electric guitar, and Hank's then-wife Audrey (mother of Hank Williams, Jr.) joined him on "Something Got a Hold of Me," "I Heard My Mother Praying for Me," and "Jesus Remembered Me." There's an immediacy and authenticity to these intimate, from-the-heart recordings that ranks them among the finest in the Williams oeuvre. It's easy to read into these searching tracks given our knowledge of what was to come for Williams, but his commitment to this music truly speaks for itself.
The 2-CD release of I'm Gonna Sing is housed in a six-panel digipak while the 3-LP, 140-gram vinyl version is packaged within a triple gatefold jacket. Both formats feature Colin Escott's exemplary liner notes, a sessionography, and a selection of photos and memorabilia.
The sound of a master storyteller and musical communicator sharing songs that clearly held a great deal of meaning to the singer, I'm Gonna Sing: The Mother's Best Gospel Radio Recordings is out from BMG on Friday, March 11, and can be pre-ordered at the links below.
- I Am Bound for the Promised Land
- I'll Fly Away
- Thirty Pieces of Silver
- The Old Country Church
- Jesus Died for Me
- Thy Burdens Are Greater than Mine
- Searching for a Soldier's Grave
- Something Got a Hold of Me - Hank & Audrey Williams with The Drifting Cowboys
- When God Dips His Love in My Heart
- Lord Build Me a Cabin
- Drifting Too Far from the Shore
- That Beautiful Home
- I'm Gonna Sing
- Lonely Tombs (Oh Those Tombs)
- How Can You Refuse Him
- Where He Leads Me
- At the Cross
- The Blind Child's Prayer
- I Saw the Light
- Farther Along
- Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet
- I'll Have a New Life
- Precious Lord, Take My Hand
- I Heard My Mother Praying for Me - Hank & Audrey Williams with The Drifting Cowboys
- Steal Away/The Funeral
- From Jerusalem to Jericho
- I've Got My One-Way Ticket to the Sky
- I Dreamed That the Great Judgment Morning
- Softly and Tenderly
- Where the Soul of Man Never Dies
- When the Fire Comes Down from Heaven
- I Dreamed About Mama Last Night
- The Prodigal Son
- Jesus Remembered Me - Hank & Audrey Williams with The Drifting Cowboys
- Dust on the Bible
- Dear Brother
- The Pale Horse and His Rider
- I Heard My Savior Calling Me
- Wait for the Light to Shine
- When the Saints Go Marching In