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Hank Williams

The Complete Hank Williams – 1998 (Mercury)

Reviewed by Joel Bernstein

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CDs by Hank Williams

For someone who is unquestionably one of the most important musical figures of this century, Hank Williams' recorded catalogue has been a mess. Yes, you can get the hits easily enough, and for some people that's plenty. But the numerous Hank Williams CDs and vinyl albums that have been released over the years contain both hits and rarities with bewildering variations of overdubbing. It's been nearly impossible for anyone to keep track of exactly what they have.

This 10-CD set has for the first time in one place all of Hank's studio recordings in their original released form, along with all of his demo recordings undubbed. (And Hank is never more emotional vocally than when singing just to his own guitar accompaniment.) In addition, there are numerous live and broadcast performances. Top it off with two books containing superb essays and songnotes as well as rare photos. Except for the lower price and smaller physical package, this could easily be mistaken for a release from Germany's Bear Family label. Collectors know that is very high praise. Nowadays, words don't always mean what we think they mean. The definition of complete "for purposes of this box set," tucked away in one of these books, is a masterwork of hair-splitting. Not included here are numerous live or demo versions, of songs Hank released on a studio recording. Almost all of the 2-CD "Health And Happiness Shows" is omitted.

But what is here is generally wonderful. There are 53 recordings never previously issued in any form. These include one made with Kitty Wells just before she signed her first contract, and a duet with Little Jimmy Dickens. Most of the material in this box is of pristine sound quality. (There are notable exceptions, such as three terribly scratchy tracks that comprise the "Farmer Jim Tapes" in the middle of disc nine) For anyone who loves and cherishes country music, this box is essential.