the root cellar: hank williams

Let’s put it this way: one’s appetite for reissued work is only limited by one’s budget! The purpose of this column is to review some of the best of this new wealth of “old” stuff, while at the same time connecting it with the present…”


by john pinamonti


When I was first seriously getting into music, I noticed older musicians and music buffs talking about people like Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, Dexter Gordon, Howlin’ Wolf and Hank Williams. I of course began to seek out the work of these artists, only to find that I couldn’t find them. I mean, I could find the last few records Muddy did, but only because they were on a major label and produced by a rock star, and if I was lucky I would run across a few jazz, blues and country things at a used record store or some thrift shop. It never made sense to me why recordings of all these great musicians were so hard to find. The public library proved to be my main source – they must’ve had a hip record buyer back in the 50’s and 60’s, because a lot of out-of-print stuff was there (and I still have a lot of that collection on tape). It could only be a question of time before someone realized all this music should be readily available, and of course, with the advent of the CD and digital technology, that time has come. Now the record-buying public can walk into any halfway decent store and pick up practically all of the great Chess Records artists (Waters, Wolf, Williamson, etc), cruise over to the Folk section and buy the complete Asch recordings of Woody Guthrie, saunter over to the Jazz section and find all of Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note sessions, two-step on over to Country and buy the Hank Williams Singles collection… let’s put it this way: one’s appetite for reissued work is only limited by one’s budget! The purpose of this column is to review some of the best of this new wealth of “old” stuff, while at the same time connecting it with the present. There has been more than enough written and said about “roots rock”, “alt-country”, “neo-blues”…I ain’t gonna jump up on any soapbox, but I will speak from inside the smokebox as a listener and musician who is profoundly affected by “old” recordings. And I’ll stop using quote marks around “old” right now. It’s not old, y’all, it’s timeless!

Not so long ago not many people seemed interested in old stuff – it was (and still mainly is) about image and profit. But things are changing, as witnessed by a recent email I received from a youngster who told me he was listening to Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb. These are two guys I could’ve never gotten people to listen to in previous times (I’ll be telling you all about some of their recordings in future columns). Now it’s hard to find their CDs not because they’re rare, but because they’re sold out! All I can say is, it’s about G—— D—— time! So prepare your ears and attitudes, my friends, and check your bank account ‘cause you are going to want to run out and buy what I’ll be talking about. Not because you’re trying to be hip, or trying to be like Moby (and if you don’t know who he is, well, that’s for the better), but because it’s great music that should be a part of your life.

Now I’ll leave you with my first pick: Hank Williams Rare Demos First to Last (Country Music Foundation). This is the next best thing to having Hank show up at your house with his guitar, sit down in your kitchen, and proceed to play 2 dozen tunes. There are a few of his better-known songs here, along with some that never made it past the demo phase. But the word “demo” shouldn’t be used here. In some cases, I think he sings better here than on the master band versions. People who knew him said that he always sang with all his might, and these recordings are proof of that. He doesn’t just play the songs for the sake of illustration – he treats each one as if it was the last song he would get to sing. This CD is essential in that it presents Hank free and clear of his legend – no band, no crazy wife, no glossy custom-made suits, no pictures of him drunk and stoned off his butt. Just him and his guitar, and his ability to get to the core of each song and sing the hell out of it. Regardless of whether you are a country fan or not, you will appreciate the stark beauty of this collection, and you will understand why Hank is such an influence on so many of the great singer/songwriters of the last 50 years.

Next:  Country Compilation Classics .


Originally published:
Issue Two
October 2000


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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