I stopped taking the word “complete” seriously after I shelled out big bucks for the 10-CD Complete Hank Williams in 1998, only to discover a flood of material from him that the box didn’t include. First, I encountered the two-disc Health & Happiness Shows, which had been issued five years earlier; then came such albums as Unreleased Recordings (2008) and Rare and Unreleased Recordings (2011), each of which filled three CDs.
The newly reissued Complete Health & Happiness Shows may or may not deliver on the first word in its title, but it is well worth buying, at least by anyone who didn’t pick up the aforementioned 1993 edition of this collection. The 49-track song list is the same in both releases, but the material has been newly transferred from the original transcription discs, restored, and remastered, resulting in excellent sound quality. Plus, the set includes extensive new liner notes and, unlike its predecessor, is available on vinyl as well as CD.
The program features eight 12-minute radio shows, all recorded in October 1949 and aired during the spring of 1950. The performances and Williams’s folksy introductions to them add up to something that sounds like snippets from a real-life Prairie Home Companion. The shows are notable for containing the first recorded work by the Nashville-era lineup of his backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, and even more noteworthy for the role they played in exposing the then 26-year-old Williams and his music to the world.
Before 1949, he had been featured on the influential Louisiana Hayride and had scored two Top 10 hits, “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” (which is featured here) and “Move It on Over.” But few listeners could have guessed at that point that he would be remembered as arguably the most important artist in the history of country music. That achievement became increasingly easy to imagine starting around the time of these recordings, however: he scored seven Top 10 hits in 1949, and another 22 from 1950 until his death three years later at age 29.
There is some repetition in this two-CD package: every program begins with the Health & Happiness show’s theme song, the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy,” and an introduction of Williams by Nashville DJ Grant Turner; and every show ends with a rendition of the traditional “Sally Goodin’” and a farewell from the singer, who promises that “if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, we’ll see you again before long.”
Between those bookends, though, Williams manages to fit in a wide variety of other material, including such Top 10 country hits as “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave),” “Mind Your Own Business,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Also on the program are such gems as “A Mansion on the Hill,” which Williams wrote with Fred Rose; Claude Boone’s “Wedding Bells”; “Lovesick Blues,” the Irving Mills/Cliff Friend number that dates from 1922 and that topped the charts for Williams; the now-classic “Lost Highway”; and Williams’s only known recording of Grady and Hazy Cole’s often-covered gospel number, “The Tramp on the Street.”
If there’s a scratch on the record, it’s the four numbers featuring vocals by Williams’s wife Audrey (two of which are duets with Hank). She has been called the Nashville Yoko Ono and, in the liner notes here, a blunt Colin Escott says of her singing, “You either hate it or you loathe it.” I wouldn’t go quite that far but I wouldn’t exactly call it a highlight.
Highlights do abound, however. This is seminal work from a masterful songwriter and uniquely engaging vocalist. Your “complete” Hank Williams collection isn’t really complete without it.
Michaela Anne, Desert Dove. If this latest release from Nashville-based Michaela Anne doesn’t turn her into a major star, I don’t know what will. The consummate backup crew and lush, atmospheric production offer a perfect environment for her gorgeous, personality-drenched vocals, moody, well-hooked melodies, and smart lyrics. There are enough elements of traditional country—not to mention honky-tonk—here to suggest the influence of artists ranging from Patsy Cline to Crystal Gayle; but like, say, Dwight Yoakum (whose former guitarist, Brian Whelan, is featured), she also has an affinity for pop and rock. There are some irresistible love songs on Desert Dove, such as the uptempo “Run Away with Me,” as well as moody ballads and mid-tempo numbers like the title track, whose protagonist is a prostitute. There’s also a potent feminist anthem called “If I Wanted Your Opinion.” Great stuff, all of it. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
Glenna Bell, Let Freedom Ring: Songs for a New Generation. Glenna Bell’s instantly identifiable, quavering vocals inform this noteworthy EP, a digital-only release that includes seven new originals, two cowritten with producer Ronnie King, who plays piano and strings. The program opens with a trio of sweetly affecting and fresh-sounding love songs—“So Many Good Times with You,” “So in Love with You,” and “Right Here Beside Me.” Then comes “Big Thicket,” in which Bell points out that before Austin came to dominate Texas music, the state embraced different sorts of sounds from the likes of Edgar and Johnny Winter, George Jones, Janis Joplin…and Bell herself. Capping the program are three numbers about life in today’s America: “Country Club,” “You Will Go On,” and “Let Freedom Ring,” all of which balance a clear-eyed look at challenges with a sense of optimism and resilience.
Shaun Johnson’s Big Band Experience, Capitol. You don’t have to listen long to Shaun Johnson—who splits his stage and studio time between this brassy octet and the a cappella, multimillion-record-selling Tonic Sol-fa—to realize that he is a major talent. His vocal gymnastics are a kick and his frequently high-octane arrangements will keep you smiling, if not up and dancing. This album is a bit schizophrenic: on the one hand are brassy, jazzy arrangements of songs like Elvis Presley’s “Bossa Nova Baby” (by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), the Mavericks’ “What You Do to Me,” and “Them There Eyes,” the vintage number popularized by Billie Holiday; on the other are contemporary piano-spiced ballads that sound reminiscent of early Billy Joel, such as Ben Rector’s “The Men That Drive Me Places,” Gabe Dixon’s “If I Love You,” and “All Your Favorite Bands,” from the indie folk-rock band Dawes. All of it works.
Chris & Adam Carroll, Good Farmer. Adam Carroll, who reminds me a bit of the late, great Guy Clark, is well known in Austin, Texas, his home base, but not so well known nationally. With any luck, that will change in the wake of this folk/Americana release, a collaboration with his talented wife of six years. Both are compelling vocalists, and their songs are built to last. The album—which was produced by Lloyd Maines, whose past projects include Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore—was recorded mostly in a single day. That could have produced a recording that sounded sloppily put together; in this case, though, the result seems likably homespun, as if you were listening to the couple play on their front porch. On most of this album, vocals are handled primarily or entirely by either Chris or Adam; but on the best track—“Hi-Fi Love,” which Adam penned years ago with Canadian singer/songwriter Scott Nolan—the couple share centerstage, offering a charming vocal dialogue that reminds me of duets by Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.