Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Hank Williams

  • 40 Greatest Hits [Polydor, 1978]  
  • Just Me and My Guitar [Country Music Foundation, 1985] B+
  • Lovesick Blues: August 1947-December 1948 [Polydor, 1985] A-
  • Alone With His Guitar [Mercury, 2000] A-
  • The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years [Mercury, 2005] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

40 Greatest Hits [Polydor, 1978]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Just Me and My Guitar [Country Music Foundation, 1985]
Why do demos have such a mystique? Aren't they created solely to sell songs? And if Williams's prominence freed him of the need to compromise his expression, didn't it also free him of the need to put the song across at all? I mean, it wasn't evil bizzers who forced him to record with a band--the band was Hank's pride and joy. Listen to the static singsong rhythms of these strummed solo versions and you'll know why--when Vic McAlpin (?) provides a touch of vocal counterpoint on "You Better Keep It on My Mind," it's like somebody just pulled up the shades. Nor are all the obscurities as epochal as the side-openers, "Honky Tonk Blues" and "Jambalaya," both available and then some in livelier, more crisply recorded versions. Because Williams was a genius, his alternate takes are certainly of interest, and occasionally--the slow, stark "A House of Gold," for instance--they're riveting. But this is for serious collectors. Casual collectors should put their money into Polydor's complete-recordings twofers before evil bizzers kill the project. B+

Lovesick Blues: August 1947-December 1948 [Polydor, 1985]
The second installment of a worthy project that better not get stalled in corporate machinations, these 21 tracks represent Williams' entire chronological unoverdubbed studio output from the period plus four nonsession recordings, three of them "sacred." I don't believe in anybody's uninterrupted genius, but most of the 18 tracks not on Williams' 40 Greatest Hits range from impressive to stunning. "Honky Tonkin'" and "I'll Be a Bachelor 'Til I Die" and "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" and "The Blues Come Around" would be enough to establish Williams as a hot songwriter. Add such covers as "I'm Satisfied With You" and "Rootie Tootie" and "I Wish I Had a Nickel" and you have the best country album released in 1985. A-

Alone With His Guitar [Mercury, 2000]
Like most rock and rollers, and most country fans, I much prefer Hank the honky-tonker. But back before Pete Seeger claimed eminent domain, Williams just as often conceived himself as a folksinger. Mixing standards with obscurities and originals with covers, this 18-track selection from the countless solo demos and radio transcriptions preserved on his daunting ten-CD set will satisfy most of us. His directness is in relief, and though his natural sense of rhythm is irrepressible, his natural gravity overpowers it. If you wonder how the songwriter could get as starkly lugubrious as "A Teardrop on a Rose," listen to the singer bore into "With Tears in My Eyes" and "Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine." A-

The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years [Mercury, 2005]
Musically as well as lyrically, Williams was so simple he was profound--Irving Berlin was Brecht-Weill by comparison. Without benefit of drums, his pulse was livelier than that of any competing country singer even when he was very sad, which whatever the tempo was most of the time. But he was also mawkish and austere, and his best-known titles have been played to death. So truth to tell, I generally pull out Lefty Frizzell when I want me some honky-tonk. Now maybe I won't. Although this triple has room for more than the 60 titles it gives up, and the 10 CDs of his box set include major performances it passes by, its size feels just right. First it breaks up the classics with beguiling semi-obscurities. Then it breaks up the semi-obscurities with classics. A