Hank Williams died in the backseat of a Cadillac at age 29 on his way to a New Year’s Day show in Ohio, drunk and filled with a variety of painkillers. He had the body of a man 69 and fading, ravaged by spina bifida occulta, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a failing heart.
His genius as a songwriter and performer never failed him, however. Police officers arrived to find his body near a handful of unfinished lyrics, and at his final recording session he cut “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a song so profoundly country that many consider it to be the very definition of the form.
Williams’ recording career was short, with an official output of only 31 singles, 30 of which charted with seven reaching No. 1. That his legacy remains so powerful is a testament to his brilliance as a writer, interpreter and undeniable charisma as a performer.
“Hank Williams – Pictures From Life’s Other Side: The Man And His Music In Rare Photos And Recordings” is a quietly lavish collection from BMG that collects the entirety of Williams’ performances from his weekday radio show on WSM, which was sponsored by Mother’s Best flour.
Williams recorded 72 shows from 1951 until his death and this collection is the first to gather all of his Mother’s Best performances — 144 tracks on six CDs, each carefully restored and remastered from the original transcription discs by Michael Graves and overseen by producer Cheryl Pawelski.
It’s all Williams, with guest stars and instrumentals from his band, the Drifting Cowboys, edited out to keep it down to a bit more than seven hours of deep country, gloomy spirituals and chatty commentary from Williams even as he prepares to tear your heart out with his next song.
Equally impressive is the accompanying 272-page book that’s largely comprised of more than 200 often spectacular photos, including many that have rarely —or never — been published.
The archival quality of the photos is impressive and perhaps the most startling are a handful of color photos; the starkness of Williams’ songs and voice have always made it seem as if he actually lived in black and white. The book’s lone essay is written by Williams biographer Colin Escott, with additional writing by Scott B. Bomar and an introduction by Williams’ daughter, Jett. Ken Campanile researched and collected the photos.
This box set isn’t one that shouts at you. Its elegance stems from its handsome simplicity: A stout slipcover holds the coffee-table book, which houses the CDs. The photo used for the cover is appropriately bleak, reflecting the pain that’s at the heart of many of Williams’ best-known songs, but inside offers a more nuanced story. In most of the photos Williams is sporting a sly grin stretched across his gaunt face — he clearly had some of the devil in him, or maybe he was just drunk — but his eyes always have a haunted quality.
Not all of Williams’ hits are represented — “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” is missing, for example, and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” had yet to be released — but included is “Move It on Over,” “Lovesick Blues,” “A Mansion on the Hill,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).”
Because Williams had the freedom to play anything he wanted in addition to his hits, there are a number of spirituals which he often dedicates to elderly shut-ins listening at home. He also covers a few hits popularized by others, including a version of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” that is the sound of pure, undiluted sorrow; it makes Willie Nelson’s version sound like a party.
Williams is one of those artists so important to his genre that he almost exists above and beyond it. Perhaps that’s because he died so young, leaving a catalog that will forever reflect only the blazing genius of his youth. “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” does him proud and any Williams completist needn’t think twice; the combination of music and photos tells a story worth hearing and seeing again and again.
Article produced in partnership with BMG