Riffs: More surprises from the Hank Williams’ vault

Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 1:00am

Numerous anthologies and boxed sets have spotlighted Hank Williams’ incomparable compositions and recordings. But an amazing new three-disc package The Unreleased Recordings (Time Life) unveils numbers even many hardcore country collectors never knew existed.

The set contains 54 previously unreleased songs made when Williams was at his peak as a performer. These were cut in 1951, the year he became one of America's greatest stars. Tony Bennett's cover of "Cold, Cold Heart" was a pop sensation and eventually became the number one song in the country. It was so appealing and popular many others wanted to put their stamp on it, and subsequently Louis Armstrong, Diana Washington and Perry Como covered the song.

Meanwhile Williams was doing concerts all over the nation, headlining each weekend at the Grand Ole Opry and doing weekday morning radio shows on WSM-AM. The station was so anxious to ensure a regular Williams presence that they would bring him into the studios when he wasn't on the road to pre-record shows for those periods when he was out of town.

The Unreleased Recordings, a set licensed directly from the estate of Hank Williams, not only features him on several wonderful originals but also performing a wealth of material encompassing all his influences. There are spirituals and gospel numbers, honky-tonk and boogie pieces, topical (for the time) fare and even near novelty cuts and tunes close to concept numbers like "The Pale Horse and His Rider" or "Tennessee Border."

Williams’ vocals on such anthems as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" are thrilling, but these pieces are familiar country staples. The revelation comes in hearing Williams' versions of quartet gospel gems like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "When God Dips His Love In My Heart" or demonstrating his facility on the likes of "On Top of Old Smoky" and "When The Saints Go Marching In," demonstrate his easily remaking them his way.

While he was certainly a master on country and gospel pieces, he never seems uncomfortable or tentative on any number.

The liner notes provide both family (Jett Williams) and historical (producer and country historian Colin Escott) perspective. The remastering manages to improve and enhance the sonic quality without negating the energy of the original recordings.

Unlike previous greatest hits samplers and collections, The Unreleased Recordings doesn't just present works everyone knows and loves. Instead, it presents a significant portion of a country giant's legacy, and gives fans a host of prime tunes most didn't even know existed.

Another classic country reissue

The famed Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison release stands beside James Brown's 1962 Apollo concert, B.B. King's Live At The Regal and a slim handful of other live recordings whose excellence and impact were extensive.

Some deem the day Cash made the set (Jan. 13, 1968) as the most important in his career. Whether you buy that or not, there's no doubt that Cash and his musical companions, among them June Carter Cash, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers and the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle, Helen and Anita) made an electrifying album that helped vault Johnny Cash to iconic status.

What's not quite as well known is the fact that Johnny Cash did two shows that day at Folsom Prison. Now the new double CD/DVD set Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition) (Columbia/Legacy) compiles all the music from both shows, and presents the entire event, opening and closing announcements and everything else, the way the audience experienced it.

During the first show, Perkins and the Statler Brothers opened for Cash with "Blue Suede Shoes" and "This Ole House" respectively, then come stirring Cash performances on "Folsom Prison Blues," "Busted" and several more. June Carter Cash helped turn things smoking hot when she joined Johnny for duets on "Jackson" and "I Got A Woman," and both "June's Poem" and "I'm Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail" are fresh cuts.

The second disc offers completely unreleased material, with highlights including a great Carl Perkins' vocal on "Matchbox," The Statlers' soaring harmonies on "Flowers On The Wall" and inspiring vocals on "How Great Thou Art," plus a poignant "Give My Love To Rose" duet number and numerous intense, remarkable Cash performances, among them "Busted," "25 Minutes to Go," and "Dark As A Dungeon."

The DVD includes Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, a documentary co-produced by Bestor Cram and Michael Streissguth, and it blends the memories of Cash friends and family with old and new footage, archival material and interviews that assess the concert's importance. The latest edition of Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is the most comprehensive and valuable one.

Vintage rock sets

Ry Cooder has delved into obscure blues and country, rockabilly and Latin pop, made concept and historical releases, and always sung and played in a joyful, exuberant manner.

The two-disc The UFO Has Landed (Rhino) begins with a Johnny Cash cover "Get Rhythm," ends with an Elvis Presley hit "Little Sister," and in between zips through a Leadbelly piece ("On A Monday"), R&B filtered through a Zydeco prism ("Let's Work Together"), New Orleans jazz ("Maria Elena"), a train song ("Boomer's Story"), Southern soul ("Dark End Of The Street") and anything else Cooder's felt like trying over the years from Hawaiian pop to cowboy songs, folk, film soundtrack cuts and even his own compositions ("Paris, Texas," "Theme From Alamo Bay," "Going Back To Okinawa").

Besides Cooder's spry vocals and invigorating guitar playing, there are many excellent contributions from such musicians as Jim Keltner, Buckwheat Zydeco, Jim Dickinson, Van Dyke Parks and others.

It's possible to get a quick education on 20th century American music simply by carefully studying all Cooder's releases. This collection provides a good introduction to the array of genres that he periodically explores.

Heartache has often been a catalyst for great music, and that was the case with Graham Nash's 1971 disc Songs for Beginners, now newly reissued as a CD/DVD (Atlantic/Rhino).

The disc's most emotionally wrenching, lyrically memorable tunes, especially "Simple Man," were written as a way for Nash to confront the pain he was feeling following the end of his relationship with Joni Mitchell. "I Used To Be A King" and "Better Days" are almost as passionate and powerful, though "Wounded Bird" could also be considered part of the same mood. However Nash wrote the searing message cut "Chicago" for this same release, as well as "We Can Change The World."

The DVD includes a new interview with Nash, plus alternative recorded versions of the CD in 5.1 sound and a new stereo mix in advanced resolution. While the various sonic packages only matter to those with high-end equipment, Nash's songs are just as riveting 37 years later.

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