Invaluable to Hank Williams completists and music historians, The Legend Begins: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, a handsomely packaged three-CD set, meticulously annotated by the ubiquitous Colin Escott, does indeed contain genuine, previously unheard rarities on its third disc—the earliest known recordings of the young Hank, from 1938 or ’39, then a 15- year-old hanging around Montgomery, Alabama, plus four newly unearthed 1940 home recordings previously tucked away in the archives of Hank’s sister Irene. Less headline worthy on the disc is a short radio show Hank and his wife Audrey performed in 1951 for the March of Dimes at a moment in American history when polio was ravaging the populace. The other two discs contain the 1949 Health & Happiness radio shows (sponsored by the patent medicine Hadacol, which was twelve percent alcohol), featuring an energized, feeling- his-oats Hank performing many of what became his landmark songs, with Audrey taking the spotlight on occasion to do her pale imitation of Kitty Wells (there’s a reason she has been referred to as “the Yoko Ono of country music” and not solely for her disruptive presence) and Jerry Rivers signing off each short H&H segment with a fiery fiddle break.
The yin and the yang? These exact same Health and Happiness Shows have been available since 1993, when Mercury Nashville released the complete set on two discs. On the other hand, audio restoration back then was not what it is today. Consequently, in the hands of a master of the art such as Joe Palmaccio, the original set’s Rice Krispies sonics (Snap! Crackle! Pop!) have been supplanted by sparkling, crisp audio with Hank’s reedy, emotive vocals more dynamic and piercing than ever, out front in a mix further framed by clearly delineated, very live-sounding support by Hank’s Drifting Cowboys band, with steel guitarist Don Helms beginning to burnish his legend by serving as a second plaintive voice to Hank’s.
On that third disc, with all first-time- ever-released recordings, a decidedly Jimmie Rodgers-influenced, blues- drenched teenage Hank, accompanied by accordionist Pee Wee Moultrie on the surprise find of the 1938 sides, cuts a swinging version of Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon’s 1928 double-entendre blues, “Fan It,” and backed it with a sprightly, freewheeling workout on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The blues focus dominates the four home recordings, notable among these being “Greenback Dollar” in a driving, Appalachian folk- flavored treatment, hearkening back to the song’s origin.
As a fully mature vocalist by 1949, Hank brings it on the Health and Happiness performances: he’s at his bluesiest best on “Lovesick Blues”; deeply affecting on a wrenching “Tramp On the Street,” a song about Jesus being mistaken for a tramp and dying forsaken; an aggrieved honky tonker, acerbic and cocksure, in “I’m a Long Gone Daddy”; severe and soulful on the hymn “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels”; and chillingly wounded on the then-unrecorded, now- monumental heartbreaker, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The Legend Begins would not be your first choice before, say, the 10-CD Complete Hank Williams, but its Disc 3 rarities may well be the final, long-missing chapter chronicling the evolution of a towering American original, from gestation to full flowering. Well worth buying for that alone