After years in litigation, the estate of Hank Williams is making a trove of more than 200 unique radio and concert performances by the late country music icon available for film, TV and advertising licensing.
The tracks — which include vibrant alternate versions of such Williams classics as “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I Can’t Help It” and “I Saw the Light” — are owned by Williams’ heirs, country singers Hank Williams Jr. and his half-sister Jett Williams.
Though it’s been 60 years since hard-living singer-songwriter Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac en route to a show in Canton, Ohio, the appetite for his music in Hollywood has remained hearty.
In recent years, masters of Williams’ Sterling and MGM studio recordings — held by Universal Music Group — have been used in features including “Seven Psychopaths,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Rango,” “Zombieland” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and on TV skeins including “Vegas,” “Cold Case,” “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under.”
Nashville attorney F. Keith Adkinson, who is married to Jett Williams and represents the estate, said of the estate-held material, “We are trying to do some multimedia marketing, make it available to people.”
The material being made available includes 73 15-minute shows recorded at Nashville radio station WSM in 1951 for the Mother’s Best Flour company; eight 12-minute “Health & Happiness” shows cut at WSM in October 1949; and concerts recorded at Niagara Falls, N.Y., in May 1952 and Sunset Park, Penn., in July 1952.
These rare recordings took a winding path to the marketplace. Their ownership was in dispute until a 2006 appellate court decision gave the Williamses rights to the Mother’s Best recordings.
After they were discarded when WSM moved offices in 1961, acetate disc recordings of the shows were rescued from a Dumpster by former station photographer and Williams fan Les Leverett. In 1982 Leverett sold the discs to onetime Drifting Cowboys bassist Hillous Butrum, who licensed them to a Texas firm, Legacy Entertainment Group (not to be confused with Sony Music’s latter-day catalog arm Legacy Recordings).
After Legacy began marketing Mother’s Best packages on regional TV, Polygram Records (which merged with UMG in 1999) and the Williams estate sued the company; after years in the courts, the 2006 appellate decision upheld an award of the Mother’s Best titles to Jett and Hank Williams, Jr.
Adkinson said, “Once I won the lawsuit that determined that the only thing that the record labels had were the masters of the songs that Hank recorded in a studio, that brought to Junior and Jett the Health & Happiness and Mother’s Best (shows), concerts and anything else we could turn up… Once the court decision came down, we had a lot of suitors who wanted to have access to the materials. The one that stood out was Time-Life.”
An agreement with Time-Life Records led to a series of CD releases that brought most of the Williams rarities to listeners for the first time. Highlights from the Mother’s Best shows were issued on two three-CD packages in 2008-09; a complete 15-CD box was released in 2010. The Health & Happiness shows – first issued on CD by Polygram in 1993 — were re-released on “The Legend Begins” in 2011, while the New York and Pennsylvania shows were heard on “The Lost Concerts” last October.
The radio recordings received a sonic upgrade with remastering for the Time-Life releases. Jett Williams said, “The fidelity of the Mother’s Best (recordings) has been rated as better than some of the masters.”
The Williams estate recordings include a number of gems Hank Sr. never cut in the studio — some 50 tracks ranging from a wealth of gospel material to his renditions of such country standards as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Cool Water.”
While there is little surviving audio of the country luminary from his late ’40s-early ’50s heyday, the WSM radio shots include homespun banter by Williams. Jett Williams notes, “We’ve got him talking…If you’re (making) a commercial, you can have Hank Williams saying, ‘Hey, good lookin’.’ It’s not just the song.”
But the singer’s daughter added that the vitality of the estate’s recordings — especially the Mother’s Best shows, which were widely praised by critics on their release — is what sets them apart from the better-known studio sides.
“When he did these recordings,” Jett Williams said, “He was at the top of his game. He was singing like his life depended on it.”