INTERVIEW: Jett Williams for Hank Williams Mother’s Best
I sat down with Jett Williams, daughter of the late Hank Williams, and visited with her about the music and the new box set that is available through TIME LIFE. The shape of the box is that of a vintage radio just like the ones that filled the homes of our grandparents. The box comes complete with a knob on the front that when pushed, plays a sampling of the music; looking at it from the back you see the lights and wiring, you feel like you have taken a step back in time.
Bev: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for the box set or who came up with it?
JW: What we wanted to do with the box set is come up with a type of packaging to take the buyer and the listener back to that era that’s contained within the set; vintage 1951. This is a replica of what the standard model radio probably was in every home in that particular era. I think it is more like 1930-ish but this would have been the model if we walked in someone’s front door. This is the one they would have listened to the Grand Ole Opry on and the one they turned on in the morning. This is the median that people had their communication, their entertainment and their recreation on. The detail that Time Life has done on the box set from the back to the front, if this was in the home, it would look like this. As you open the box set, it takes you into that period. The information that should be noted is these recordings came from acetate. Acetate is a metal disc that they would put down, in the infancy of recording.
My Dad did a 15 minute radio show at WSM five days a week at 7:15 am. His touring schedule was so intense he couldn’t be there. What they did is they put this in the can so to speak. There were 72 shows of that year that he was not in the studio. Even when this played over the radio, probably 99.9% of the people believed he was in the studio because many people didn’t understand that things were duplicated. One thing that is fascinating about this box set is if you are listening to show 52, there is also a poster in there and a map of the country and it lists the shows. You can actually go on the map and find where he was at when the show aired. The acetates were designed to play only one time. They would record them and after that show played, the acetate was discarded. Acetate is very fragile also so they are not made to play over and over. The fact that they were saved from the dumpster and they were in the condition they were in for us to make the transfer was a miracle in itself. I actually have physical possession of the acetates. The CDs in the box set are actual pictures of the hub of the acetate with the engineer’s grease pen writing from the show. The jackets the original acetates are in are like a paper sack. We tried to duplicate baby acetates to create that “flavor”. The book is not a booklet, it is a book. Over the years there has been some repetition, but we tried to put in photos people hadn’t seen, stories and things like that so that the buyers are not buying just another piece of “slice and dice” type work.
Another fascinating thing is that unless you heard him sing that morning in 1951, you never heard him sing this version of this song and there are 143 songs on here. My dad emcee’s the show; so you are talking about 80 hours plus of him talking, setting the songs up, telling you why he wrote a song, what his favorite songs are, talking about current events, bantering with the band, so you actually meet the guy; Hank Williams. Before, for the most part, he was either an 8x10 glossy photo that we’ve all seen or you have heard him on an MGM master, but the fidelity of these recordings, the experts say, are as good if not better than the MGM masters. If you look at the box set you can almost smell those biscuits, feel that coffee and you think he is in the kitchen with you singing to you.
Bev: What inspired you to do a box set? How much input did you have as far as the concept for it all to come together?
JW: When the estate signed with Time Life, it was not a licensing type agreement, it was a partnership. Time Life partnered with the estate and we had a complete say so on every picture, every detail. For the most part, the people at Time Life would come up with ideas, they would send it, we would say yes, no, great idea, what about this, what about that. This is what Time Life does, this is their forte. I grew up with Time Life and Reader’s Digest. What we wanted to create is something that will eventually be downloadable. The only thing is you can’t download this map and this book, the CDs and the packaging. We didn’t want to create something that was just the same packaging. I think this is very innovative in the fact that it is a concept as opposed to just a box set. It is also interactive in that you turn the radio on, you pick up the map and then you can trace this as opposed to just putting it in there with another book.
Bev: Have you had an opportunity to talk to any of his fans or anyone that has it to get their reaction?
JW: The interviews that I have done, the reviews that have come out, the fans that have come to wherever I am at and have the set, they are in awe. We have put out two other box sets that are a part of this collection and people that have bought them have been blown away by the fidelity and by what comes with the complete set. This is a complete set in that it even has the demo that my Dad did with Aunt Jemima. In the studio, they did a pitch to Aunt Jemima pancakes and syrup. My Dad along with Owen Bradley and the Beasley Sisters did a demo to pitch to them; I guess they didn’t get the sponsorship but, it is really cool to hear Aunt Jemima say “Good mornin’ honey”. Another really unique thing is my Dad did a public service announcement that is about 14 to 16 minutes long for Venereal Disease. It is funny because they blamed the woman way back then. The point is the set has the radio shows in the fifteen minute format but also has some of the other things that were done during that 1951 year in that studio. There have been other complete box sets on Hank Williams but, they only had what they had. Hank Jr. and I had to go to court for over eight years to get clear title and ownership to this material so this is the complete set of the “mother’s best”. This has been in the works since 1951—that’s 60 years.
Bev: As you were going through all the songs, stories and so forth, was there anything that really hit you hard more so than something else?
JW: A couple of things. Most of the songs he does, he sets up on the radio show. He sets up one of them and tells he is going to do one of the top tunes in country but, I am not going to sing it the way it’s out now, I’m going to sing it the way my Grandmamma put me to bed. The song is “On Top Of Old Smokey”. For me, as his daughter, gave me just a little slice of the family history. When I hear it now, I can imagine him as a little boy going to bed, his Grandmother tucking things down and then singing the song in this more Appalachian type, Alabama, grass roots version as opposed to what would have been the pop style. Another thing I find endearing is that because it is live even though it was on a disc, back then if you made a mistake, they would have to start over from the beginning with a new disc. They said that how many discs you used reflected on how much they would use you in the show. Every time you wasted a disc, you wasted money. They kept the mistakes there so my Dad made some mistakes and they kept them. One is he tells the band that he wants to play “I Saw The Light”, it’s a song I wrote and I would like to do it so kick it off. They kick it off, playing “I Saw The Light” but he starts singing “Precious Memories”. Then he realizes he really messed up, how he handles it and gets out of that dilemma. For me as an entertainer, it is interesting in the fact that there is an old saying that says “it’s not what happens but how you handle it.”
There are other things. He had had back surgery and one of the things that had been written about him was how much pain he was in. On the recordings he is doing the shows, but he is sitting in a chair and as he is talking, you can hear the pain in his voice as he is trying to get up out of the chair to get over to the microphone. He tells the listeners that he has had the operation and you hurt for him; being able to hear him be “human”, I guess, as opposed to that 45 or that cassette or CD that we’ve had; to actually experience the pain, to hear him laugh. The other thing I find fascinating is a lot of people prefer the dark side. Here you have a guy at 7:15 in the morning, 72 shows, sharp as a tack, he’s laughing, he’s cracking jokes and you see this light hearted Hank Williams-professional but there isn’t any “boohooing” or so down he can’t make the shows. It shows you a side of Hank Williams, a dimension that I don’t think that we’ve ever had the privilege of being able to hear or know that side of him.
Bev: What store shelves will you find the boxes sets on? Online?
JW: Right now you can buy it online at www.HankWilliamsmothersbest.com which is direct from Time Life or from the Ernest Tubb Record shop where you can order online or call. The reason for that is not everyone has the internet and we wanted to make sure that people that don’t have the internet can still purchase this set.
Bev: Will we see a lot of advertisements from Time Life in the different magazines and such?
JW: I have not seen anything scheduled for television ads or things like that. I guess it will hit the market on the internet which is different than the other box sets that we did. Right now they are keeping it in house. Maybe later there will be more media such as radio ads and television.
Bev: Besides yourself and Time Life, who else was involved with this?
JW: My husband Keith Adkinson and I were the executive producers with Time Life and that was the sole team of putting together the whole project. Janet Bozeman has done a superb job on the publicity. It has been a really close knit group of people that have worked on this project. I would say we have been on this with Time Life for four years. The thing is when you look at the packaging and the detail; it is so much more than just a product. You can see pride; you can see that it is a labor of love. The other thing that concerned my husband and I was that this is so rare; this treasure trove of material has never happened before and I don’t think it will ever happen again. We wanted to make sure the way it was presented to the world, because my Dad’s music supersedes country, and it is universal is that this is something that if he was alive today, he would say “that’s the way I would have liked it done”. It is easy to take the easy path and just take a check with whatever amount on it, let someone license it and they can either put it on the shelf or throw it out there in hopes that someone may or may not like it. They would say Hank doesn’t need any help, he can sell himself. He deserves the best and his music needs to have the embodiment of the presentation to compliment what is inside this box.
Bev: When I look at it, it takes me back immediately to my Grandmother’s kitchen. Both my Grandmothers had a radio like that and I remember walking in and that was the first thing we did; turn on the radio.
JW: We need to go back to our roots. As for his music, people ask me why I think it has lasted. It is generational and what you just said, people say “I was your Daddy’s biggest fan”; “My Momma just loved your Daddy”. I am pleased and in awe of the young people; I call it getting in the “Hank zone”. I ask them why they are listening to Hank and they say they heard Hank and he is the real deal. This one kid told me “he’s authentic”. I think where we are at in the world and in this country, is everyone has had too much of everything, too many options and too much whatever to where everyone is starting to say they want to pick and choose how they spend their time. People are starting to focus on things they want, not just in country music either. I think people are looking to go back to more basics and more grass roots.
Bev: Was there anything that scared you about putting this together?
JW: When I first heard old radio shows, I thought “Oh good Lord”, I didn’t want to struggle through the gramophone or whatever. As I said before, the experts all say that the recordings are as good if not better than the MGM masters. I think they are better because in that point and time in my Dad’s career he was at his zenith. They are not masters, no filtering, and no tweaking. These are a one time take on that microphone in their purest form and he is “take your breath away” good.
Bev: What emotions did you experience the first time you heard these recordings?
JW: It makes me feel fantastic. The thing about it is I would dare anyone to stand in front of a microphone with that type of technology and come out with that kind of vocals and that intensity and that phrasing. There is a guy in the music industry that I played this for and he said he had always heard Hank Williams, but he didn’t think he have ever really sat down and listened to Hank Williams. I had a friend that was listening to this the other day and was going to turn the television on and she stopped and said she didn’t; she didn’t want to leave 1951. Another thing is this is a snapshot of our American history because they are talking about current affairs, what the weather is like, what’s happening in the country, what’s happening in the world. The jingles on the shows are scripted, but the actual talking and bantering on the show is “free”. You can tell how intelligent my Dad is; he is talking about Napoleon Bonaparte, the President and all of these things that are happening. Also, and this is my belief, he wasn’t handed a list of songs he was suppose to do. He sings all kinds of songs and it shows you what Hank Williams liked.
This product is something that you can put in your record collection. This is something you can hand down to your children. If people come to Nashville, they need to go down on Broadway to the Ernest Tubb Record shop and visit. My Dad performed there and they have the box sets there.
Bev: Jett, I think you and I could talk for hours about this, because my passion for the music goes way back and I love your dad’s music. Thank you for sharing the personal memories and feelings and giving such an insight to this project.
JW: My pleasure, this has been a wonderful visit and I look forward to seeing you again real soon.
For more information on this amazing set of music visit http://www.hankwilliamsmothersbest.com/
transcribed by Pam Stadel