The latest evidence that 1998’s The Complete Hank Williams is erroneously titled is Pictures from Life’s Other Side, a six-CD, 144-track collection of performances from the country legend’s 1951 radio show on Nashville’s WSM. (These are commonly known as the Mother’s Best recordings, because the Mother’s Best Flour Company sponsored the 15-minute programs.) Much of the material comes from transcription discs that were discovered decades after they were made—just as they were about to be carried off to a dumpster. The producer of this project is Cheryl Pawelski, who also produced Williams’s excellent, recently reissued Health & Happiness Shows.
As a press release notes, “While previous compilations have presented either a selection of the Mother’s Best material or all of the recordings in the context of the individual radio show presentations (along with guest vocalists and instrumental numbers), this is the first collection to gather the entirety of Hank’s Mother’s Best performances and present them outside the context of self-contained radio programs.” Moreover, the recordings have been beautifully restored and remastered and are delivered in a slipcase with a 272-page hardcover book that includes many rare photos as well as extensive liner notes by Williams biographer Colin Escott.
The music offers one reminder after another of Williams’s greatness as both a singer and a songwriter. It includes many of his most popular tunes, such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Move It On Over,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” “Cold Cold Heart,” “A Mansion on the Hill,” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Also here are the only known Williams recordings of dozens of other songs, among them Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which would later become an important hit for Willie Nelson.
This box constitutes essential listening for any Williams fan—and a sad reminder of how much we lost when he died on New Year’s Day 1953, only about 13 months after WSM aired the last batch of these performances.
Mick Kolassa, Blind Lemon Sessions. If you like folk blues, you’re gonna love this CD, which reminds me of work by artists like Taj Mahal, Roy Book Binder, and the late Dave Van Ronk. Singer Mick Kolassa devotes some of the album to evergreens like Blind Blake’s “Ditty Wah Ditty,” Lonnie Johnson’s “Jelly Roll Baker,” and the traditional “St. James Infirmary.”
But the acoustic program doesn’t consist entirely of old classics. Kolassa—who previously collaborated on an entire album of Beatles covers—delivers an imaginative reading of the Fab Four’s “Help.” He also fits in some originals that, lyrically at least, sound decidedly modern. Among them: the deftly written “Recycle Me” and “Text Me Baby.” (Sample verse: “Text me mama, I’m sitting’ here all alone/I need you to hit ‘send’ right now, so I can hear your special tone.”)
Kolassa plays guitar, ukulele, percussion, and banjolele (which combines the body of a banjo with the neck of a ukulele). His first-rate backup crew adds slide guitar, bass, harmonica, violin, and more.
Letitia VanSant, Circadian. “Someone give me a song to sing that sounds like something real,” Letitia VanSant sings on her fine sophomore album. “I want the whole world to know exactly how I feel.” Listen to the nine tracks that comprise the self-penned Circadian and you’ll know. The music is gentle and melodic, and the lyrics are personal and passionate, but the main attraction is the emotive vocal work by the Baltimore-based VanSant.
I wasn’t surprised to read that she’s a fan of the late, great Jimmy LaFave: her music doesn’t sound much like his, but LaFave always seemed to sing straight from the heart, and that’s clearly what VanSant does, too. As titles like “Most of Our Dreams Don’t Come True” suggest, this album delivers its share of melancholy; but it’s ultimately life-affirming and consistently memorable.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.