Besides being terrific cinema, this scene encapsulates Hank Williams’ stark vision of loneliness and spiritual isolation. Since seeing that scene, I like to listen to Hank in my car, preferably when it’s cold out. That's the ideal way to appreciate that mournful, inimitable voice pondering such unknowables as "Why can't I free your doubtful mind/And melt your cold cold heart"?
1951 was Williams’ breakthrough year as a recording artist, but it was also a miserable time personally. Wracked by excruciating back pain, he saw his marriage fall apart, spurred on by his binge drinking. He barely made it through 1952, dying a lonely, drug-addled death on New Year’s Day 1953 in the back seat of a car. He was 29 and our first great post-War songwriter, leaving behind him a canon ranking with any in the American songbook.
Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate. In Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, he fearlessly explores this core, leading us on the harrowing journey that ultimately claimed his life.
The 3-CD set comprises a series of live studio recordings Williams made for broadcast on Sunday mornings. The liner notes don’t say so, but surely this explains why over a third of the songs are gospel numbers. In Williams’ hands, collectively these become a Biblical epic of the wanderings of a lost soul. To Hank Williams, the search for spirituality is not a collective experience found in a megachurch: It is a lonely road traveled by prodigals who quest for redemption that probably isn’t there but that at least offers the hope of self-knowledge before the release of death.
One can divine William’s preoccupations by the names of the songs he chose: “Low and Lonely,” “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “The Prodigal Son,” “I’ve Got My One Way Ticket to the Sky,” “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” “Why Should We Try Any More,” “May You Never Be Alone,” Lonely Tombs,” and “The Pale Horse and His Rider.” Collectively, they form a cinematic impact evoked perfectly by the opening scene of The Last Picture Show.
He turns the campfire song “Cool Water” into a Conradian odyssey, a tale of a parched soul pleading for deliverance only to find that redemption is a mirage. Through this performance, Williams reveals his ultimate fear: That the journey is not the reward, but just another part of the horror. Even so, moving on beats standing still, which leads to madness. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and the occasional whisper of a pedal steel guitar, Hank’s deliberate phrasing summons a paradoxical sense of inevitability. It’s a bravura performance, arguably Williams’ finest vocal, and by itself worth the price of admission.
Small pleasures abound: A spirited romp through “Cherokee Boogie,” the pellucid steel guitar solo in “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” the occasional bit of faux jive that passes for between-song banter, the first-ever appearance of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still I’m Still In Love With You),” a Korean War verse added to “Searching For A Soldier’s Grave.” And since the early ‘50’s was a time when country and bluegrass cross-pollinated, the four-part harmony of the high lonesome graces many of the performances, an adornment that perfectly augments Williams vocal style.
Some of the beloved favorites are here, but mostly Williams delves into a catalogue of rural Americana that he knew and loved and felt from the deepest parts of his soul. Hank Williams understood loneliness as an essential part – maybe the essential part – of the human condition, the surest path to the true self. He feared loneliness but couldn’t resist its embrace; in his exploration of loneliness, he ironically touched the most fearful part of us all. Perhaps the knowledge that someone else understood that part of us and could expressed it as art eases our burden and lightens our step. Certainly, such empathy allowed one soul the redemption it never knew in life...