Talking Hank Sr. with Jett Williams
Jett Williams is the daughter of the legendary Hank Williams. That’s the short story.
The amazing long version, part heartbreak and part celebration, begins in Montgomery, Alabama, five days after Hank Williams died in the back of a car on his way to Canton, Ohio in 1953. That’s when Jett Williams (then named Cathy) was born to her biological mother, Bobbie Jett. She was put up for adoption immediately and claimed by Hank’s mother, Lillian. Only two months after the adoption was finalized, Lillian passed away and with no other family members claiming the baby, she was made a ward of the State of Alabama and put into foster care.
It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that Jett discovered the full truth of her genealogy. In 1989, after a several year court struggle–and after a discovery of a notarized pre-birth custody agreement signed by Hank Sr. requesting custody of the baby–Jett Williams became a rightful heir to the Williams family.
Jett has been a musician herself, playing with a touring version of The Drifting Cowboys. But today she sees herself, along with Hank Jr., as the protectors of the Hank Williams Sr. legacy. Although she never met her father, the passion and enthusiasm she has for his music is evident from the minute she opens her mouth.
That passion and enthusiasm culminates today with the long-awaited release of Time Life’s Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings…Plus! box set. The recordings were nearly thrown out by WSM and it was another grueling series of lawsuits that finally gave ownership of the music back to the Williams family. This time…all of the Williams family.
This must be an exciting time with your father’s project finally seeing the light of day.
You know, it is unbelievable to be able to take this material and share it with everybody.
Tell me about the background of the discovery of this material.
Everything I seem to get involved with comes with a long story or a lawsuit. These recordings were from a live radio show my dad did from 1951. His touring schedule was so intense, he couldn’t be there. What they would do–this was back in the infancy of pre-recording–is put them in the can so-to-speak. Back then, when they would record a show, it was done on acetate. Those were made for a one-time play. My dad would go in, put a couple in the can and then do his live show. When he wasn’t there, they would put the acetate on and it would go out over the airwaves as if he was in the studio. Back then, people believed that when they heard him on the radio and they said it was live, it was live. After they were played, they were put in a box and basically forgotten about.
Years later, in the 1970’s, the WSM studio was moving and they were deciding what was going to stay and what was going to get thrown out. Not everything was going to make the move. These boxes were going to get thrown away. They were literally headed out the door to the dumpster. A guy by the name of Les Leverett said, “Are you going to throw them away?” So Les rescued them from being discarded. A copy was made of them and it ended up getting sold to a company in Texas. And Les gave me the acetates in the late 80’s.
I was involved in the litigation over the estate of my father. And it wasn’t until that was over that Hank Jr. and I came to an agreement on the Mother’s Best Recordings. Meanwhile, this company was going to release a copy of my dad’s recordings. They had taken the band off and added a new band. We stopped that. We went to court and then the record label jumped in and said they owned it. Hank Jr. and I prevailed. We won the lawsuit and got clear title on these recordings. And after that, we wanted to share them with his fans not only here in the States, but around the world. So we partnered with Time Life to release these recordings. That is about a 60 year old story in 60 seconds.
That is a pretty amazing story over six decades. When you listened to these songs the first time, did you learn anything new about your father?
Absolutely. Not only do you get to hear his musical genius and legacy of song, he hosts these shows. You get to meet the man, Hank Williams.
I’d imagine the conversational pieces between the songs is as important to you as some of the recordings.
Oh absolutely. Also, to the fans. But as his daughter, to hear him talk about personal things such as what his favorite car is, his favorite color is, what his favorite food is, it’s incredible. To hear him laugh and cut up is amazing. There are 140 songs that unless you were listening on those mornings back in 1951, you’ve never heard these versions of these songs. For most of the songs, he verbally sets up the song.
One of them would be, “I wrote this song and I went into the studio last week and I recorded it. And I want to break it out for the first time and play it live for the first time for you all here this morning. And it’s called, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You).”
When you hear that version with him telling you about it or when you hear him talk about how out of all the songs he’s recorded this one or that one is his favorite, it’s special. That’s opposed to hearing people say that Hank said this or Hank said that or reading that Hank said this. Now I’ve got Hank saying that. And [it is meaningful] to hear him talk about why he selected the song to sing and why the song means so much to him. But then you can hear him banter between the emcee and the band members. That is cool too. Mistakes were made on-air and you get to hear him laugh at himself. It’s so personal. It’s absolutely fantastic. You can hear songs he wrote and other people’s songs. There are songs you’ve never heard him sing before. There are many of those. I don’t remember the exact amount, but there are 140 songs. Some of them were before the masters were cut for those songs.
Is there a moment or a song that stands out above all others for you on the recordings?
I think one of them for me as his daughter is a spot where he talks about a song that he says is the number one pop record in the country, but that he was going to sing it the way his grandmama put him to bed with it. For me, that would be my great-grandmother he’s talking about. That’s family history passed down through my father. It’s so very special for me.
One of the things I think is important is that when I first heard about these recordings all I could think was, “Good Lord, old radio shows.” (Makes scratchy noises) They’d be all scratchy and unlistenable. These recordings are as good as or better than the MGM masters that we’ve all heard throughout the years. And when everything was transferred over to today’s technology, little to nothing was done to enhance the transfer. If anything, they took off a pop or a hiss. They are a pure rendition of what was recorded.
There’s a DVD that comes with the recordings as well. What can we expect to see on that?
It’s approximately 45 minutes where I host one of the band members of the Drifting Cowboys that was on all the Mother’s Best Recordings and one of the major engineers that was actually in the studio when they were recording this as well as one of the gentlemen that was a regular guest on the show. We wanted to tell the story of what is Mother’s Best, how did we come about it and get the people that were there and part of the people that made this history and get their recollection of the events that took place. They talk about what it was like to be the engineer back then. I think having the 16 CD’s is great, but you get to watch these gentlemen tell these stories.
Back then, they would record some of these shows ahead of time and play them as if he was in the studio live. He might have been in Toledo when the show was playing that morning. We’ve created a map inside the box set that will show exactly where he was in his travels on the day that the show aired. If you’re listening to show number 52, you can pull out this poster and go to the map and it will show you where he actually was when that recording went out over the airwaves. It can be interactive and you can track where he was throughout this whole process of recordings.
There’s an accompanying booklet that comes with the recordings by Hank Williams historian Colin Escot. What’s entailed in that?
Exactly. I’d even elevate it to a book rather than a booklet. Everyone who has the privilege of seeing the finished copy knows it’s truly a book. Colin has done such a fabulous job in detail and history in telling not only the same stories you’ve heard, but come up with new Hank history and in new photographs that we’ve come up with. The buyer is going to get something that they’re going to get a lot of enjoyment out of. The stuff that they’re going to get in the box set is just five stars across the board. The thing about Colin is that he’s not just such a great historian, he has his doctorate in the Hank Williams field.
How has the process been working with Time Life on this project?
It has absolutely been a pleasure. This is Time Life’s forte. This is what they do. What we wanted was something that was more than just music, it was something that people would want to have in their homes and consider a piece of history. The estate partnered with Time Life. This has been going on for four years. To be together and agree and disagree and yet still be on the same level is an honor. I know for Time Life, this is what they do and it’s their job, but they’ve gone so far above and beyond that. They have put love and heart into this project. There’s a lot of pride in what we’ve put together. When people see the packaging, they’re going to see dedication and love to my dad.
How do you see your role in your father’s legacy?
I feel that I’ve been granted the honor in being a steward to his legacy. I’m able to work with Hank Jr. One thing we’ve always agreed on is that our father’s memory, music, image and likeness only deserves the highest standard. As his daughter, everything involved in his estate has been set out that way. We’ve been able to put out music and books of our dad that we’re proud of and his fans are proud of. Hopefully he would have been proud of them as well.
How is your relationship these days with Hank Jr.?
We go along to get along. We’ve worked on this project and he’s written for this book. We’re both very proud of this project and the fact that this music has survived and is able to be shared with country music fans and music lovers around the world. This is part of America’s music fabric. It’s very important. Those songs my dad are singing are still alive and well today.
What is country music to Jett Williams?
Country music to Jett Williams is the music of the people. It’s the music of life. Country music tells you about love, laughter, and loss. I believe that, honest to God, it’s the music of life.
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