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Hank and the gospel

Hank Williams (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Music

Hank and the gospel

Performances from 1951 show a another side of the country star

Hank Williams is to country music what the Rolling Stones are to rock ’n’ roll—not its inventor but the artist who reforged the template, clearing away unnecessary accretions and engraving lean, clean lines that others, if they knew what was good for them, would follow for decades to come.

The musical element of BMG’s new, six-disc-plus-272-page-photo-book Williams box, Pictures From Life’s Other Side, spotlights Williams’ performances on the Nashville radio station WSM in 1951. In that year he, his Drifting Cowboys (Don Helms, Jerry Rivers, Sammy Pruett, Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts), and sometimes his wife hosted (along with the announcer “Cousin” Louis Buck) a daily, 15-minute, early-morning show sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour.

If Williams had never waxed anything else, these recordings, which include almost all of his greatest hits, would be enough to guarantee him his place in history.

They would also alter the way historians usually portray him. The “hillbilly Shakespeare” part would stick—his sharp Alabama twang and down-home frames of reference situate him squarely in the rural Southern tradition. But his fondness for gospel sentiments, a fondness usually relegated to footnote status, would take on greater significance.

Over a third of Pictures From Life’s Other Side’s 144 selections are gospel songs, and whether Williams wrote them (“How Can You Refuse Him Now,” “I’m Gonna Sing,” “Jesus Remembered Me,” “Jesus Died for Me,” “I Saw the Light”) or found them (“Softly and Tenderly,” “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “At the Cross,” “I’ll Fly Away”), he sang them every bit as convincingly as he sang “Cold Cold Heart,” “Move It On Over,” or—in one of the box’s most pleasant surprises—Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” 

Two years later, Williams would be dead at age 29, a casualty of drink and drugs. But there had clearly been an “other side” to his life as well, one that suggests that he didn’t go down without a fight.      

Two Williams gospel compositions not included on Pictures From Life’s Other Side, “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” and “Men With Broken Hearts,” show up on the latest album by the alt-country/Americana singer-songwriter Darrell Scott.

Darrell Scott Sings the Blues of Hank Williams (Full Light) is a record that the 60-year-old Scott—who thanks to his father’s listening habits grew up on a Williams-rich diet—was born to make. But—its title and the inclusion of “The Blues Come Around” and “Low Down Blues” notwithstanding—it comes off more Southern rock than blues, especially when Reese Wynans’ organ joins forces with Scott’s Gretsch “ratty amped” White Falcon guitar to deep-fry the melodies.

Yet neither genre tag captures the range of Scott’s tribute. And “Men With Broken Hearts” (one of Williams’ cautionary Luke the Drifter sermonettes) and “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels” (a funeral hymn movingly sung by Scott’s late father) are the reasons.