Radio broadcasts bring back country legends

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When Hank Williams and Bob Wills were making their marks on country music in the middle of the last century, radio was still king. For a country artist, exposure via the airwaves was an indispensable means to commercial success, whether it came through appearances on barn-dance broadcasts like the Grand Ole Opry or by securing a daily 15-minute radio show. New box sets from Williams and Wills of transcriptions – recordings that capture a live performance for later broadcast – reflect that ascendancy.

In late 1950, Williams started doing a weekday show on legendary Nashville station WSM, sponsored by the company that milled Mother’s Best Flour. He and his band recorded transcriptions for broadcast when, as was often the case, they were on tour and could not do the show live.

Williams recorded 72 shows before chronic back problems forced him to give up the sponsorship. “The Unreleased Recordings” (Time Life, released Oct. 28th) culls 54 songs from the transcriptions, and the emphasis is on what we haven’t heard Hank doing before.

He covers songs by his contemporaries: Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie,” Johnnie and Jack’s “Just When I Needed You,” Roy Acuff’s “Low and Lonely.” The ancient sounds that Williams first heard when he was a child are represented by songs like “On Top of Old Smoky” (done, he says, the way “the old, old timers” sang it) and a slow-rolling “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” There’s plenty of gospel, too (often featuring harmony, unlike his studio gospel recordings), including one of the first songs Williams learned, “The Blind Child’s Prayer,” and the apocalyptic “When the Fire Comes Down.”

The recordings exude an atmosphere of spontaneity; Williams often seems to be deciding to try a song on the spot. The on-air comments and banter of Williams, his band members, and announcer “Cousin” Louie Buck also add to the relaxed feel.

Wills’s “The Tiffany Transcriptions” (Collectors’ Choice Music, released Jan. 27) have been newly reissued as a packaged set, with a significant upgrade in sound quality. Wills and his Texas Playboys made these recordings for the Tiffany Music company, in which Wills had a part interest. The venture’s aim was to sell a series of prepackaged shows to subscribing radio stations, which in turn would sell advertising to air with the programs.

What must have seemed like a surefire moneymaker ended up a dismal failure. The recordings, though, are anything but. In fact, they’re regarded by many Wills aficionados as some of the best he ever made.

By 1946, when the Tiffany sessions began, Wills had slimmed down the Texas Playboys from a horn-based, big-band behemoth to an electric guitar, steel, and electric mandolin-fueled string band with a relentlessly propulsive sound. He continued to draw on his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music blues, jazz, folk, western, and more for the Tiffany recordings, as well as debuting new material and digging into the band’s vast existing repertoire. The Playboys’ future country standard, “Faded Love,” first shows up here, as do covers as diverse as “In the Mood,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Tea for Two,” “Okie Boogie,” “C-Jam Blues,” and “Red River Valley.”

As on Williams’s Mother’s Best shows, the band played without rehearsal and worked out arrangements on the fly – setting up and playing, as one participant put it, as if it were a dance. The transcription discs afforded more length for extended jamming than the standard 78-rpm discs used for studio recordings, and Wills’s trademark “a-ha’s,” yelps, and running commentaries were in overdrive. Vocalist Tommy Duncan can often be heard cracking up in response to something his bandleader has said.

In both box sets, the spontaneity occasionally leads to flubs that wouldn’t have made their way onto studio recordings, but that’s part of the charm. These relaxed recordings not only provide a bounty of previously unavailable material, they add a whole new dimension to the music of the Hillbilly Shakespeare and the King of Western Swing.

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