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Two New Items From Hank Williams


This is FRESH AIR. Hank Williams is commonly considered the most important country music songwriter and one of its first tragic figures, dying at age 29, in 1953. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of two new items featuring Williams - previously unreleased recordings from 1950 radio broadcasts called "The Garden Spot Programs," sponsored by the Naughton Farms Mail-order Nursery and rare TV performances included in the new DVD titled, "You Are There: Classic Early Films Of Legendary Performers 1952-54." Here's the opening of a 1950 Garden Spot Show.


GRANT TURNER: Well, hello, there, neighbor. Here we are, back again with another Garden Spot Program, with some more of your very good friends. We didn't dress up much today because, well, we allowed how we was going to be visiting home folks, we wouldn't need to. So you just make yourself comfortable and let me introduce our guest for today. It's your old friend, Hank Williams. Hello, Hank.

HANK WILLIAMS: Thank you a lot, Grant. And welcome friends and neighbors. We're going to start off here with a little tune, and we mean every word of it. I just can't get you off my mind.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I can't get you off of my mind. When I try, I'm just wasting my time. Lord, I tried and I tried, and all night long I cried. But I can't get you off of my mind. I didn't think you would...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Hank Williams was a star in full ascent by the time he recorded the music heard on the 1950 Garden Spot Programs. This disc features some high-quality audio of some of Williams's best songs, such as "Lovesick Blues" and "A Mansion On The Hill." As the country music scholar and co-producer Colin Escott points out in his liner notes, these performances are unusual in that Williams wasn't working with his usual band, and featured more steel guitar than Hank usually liked on his records. I think it sounds terrific.


WILLIAMS: Thank you, Grant. Thank you, Grant. Welcome, friends and neighbors. Here we are. We're going to pick you a few tunes here, we hope you're going to enjoy them. We're going to start off with a little (unintelligible) song of mine called, "I'll Be A Bachelor Til The Day I Die."

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'll take you to the picture show. And babe, I'll hold your hand. I'll set up in your parlor, let you cool me with your fan. I'll listen to your troubles, and I'll pet you when you cry. But get that marrying out of your head - I'll be a bachelor till I die. Well, I don't mind going out...

TUCKER: The DVD, titled "You Are There," includes some fascinating footage of country music performers rarely heard or talked about these days. Drawing from a number of old TV variety shows, it offers a glimpse of the way country music was most often depicted in the 1950s. The comedy acts, such as "Lonzo and Oscar" and "Stringbean," presented themselves as hicks in dented hats and wearing what we used to call dungarees. Stringbean's real name was David Akeman. He was murdered in 1973. Stringbean wasn't just funny, he was also a superb banjo player with a fast skittering clawhammer style that ran up the neck of his instrument, as can be heard here.


TUCKER: Hank Williams's performances on this DVD, "You Are There," surprised me in one respect. Williams sang with such clenched jaw intensity - I had always imagined that he performed with the same kind of rigor, perhaps in the manner of, say, George Jones. It was a revelation to see what a loose goose Hank could be, shimmying to the beat here and there. There's a fine duet performed with Anita Carter, sister of June and part of the Carter Sisters act. They do a soulful version of Hank's song, "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You."


ANITA CARTER: (Singing) Today, I passed you on the street. And my heart fell at your feet. I can't help it if I'm still in love with you.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Somebody else stood by your side. And he looked so satisfied. I can't help it if I'm still in love with you.

WILLIAMS AND CARTER: (Singing) A picture from the past came slowly stealing as I pressed your arm and walked so close to you. Then suddenly...

TUCKER: The "You Are There" DVD is being promoted as containing the only existing film of Hank Williams performing. But to my ears and eyes, it's just as valuable for its footage of country greats, like Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, and the Louvin Brothers. Still, it's Hank Williams who glows most brightly here. His direct stare into a TV camera may come off inviting and friendly, but there's also something fierce and desperate about it. The yearning of a great artist to burst through the trappings of showbiz to achieve a new level of intensity.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the CD, "Hank Williams: The Garden Spot Programs, 1950" and performances of Williams featured on the DVD, "You Are There: Classic Early Films Of Legendary Performers 1952-54." FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


WILLIAMS: Thank you, Roy. I've got a song here that I'd like to do that's been awful kind to me and the boys. It's bought us quite a few beans and biscuits. This is the best song we've ever had, financially - a little tune called "Cold, Cold Heart."

WILLIAMS: (Singing) I try so hard, my dear, to show that you're my every dream. Yet, you're afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme. A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart. Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart? Another love before my time made your heart sad and blue. And so my heart is paying now, for things I didn't do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.