CD CORNER : Williams Sr. Makes Entry With Winner

Times Pop Music Critic

There’s nothing more frustrating to a true country music fan than the fact that more than a dozen albums by Hank Williams Jr. have been released on CD and none by the late Hank Williams Sr., the most influential and acclaimed figure in modern country music.

But the wait is finally over.

Polygram, which owns the rights to all of Williams’ late ‘40s and early ‘50s recordings on MGM Records, has released a two-disc set that contains 40 of Williams’ most important recordings. The package is part of Polygram’s budget line, meaning it can be found in many stores for less than $20 on the company’s Polydor label.

Hank Williams’ “40 Greatest Hits” (Polydor)--The hard-living Williams was just 29 when he died of a heart attack in the early hours of Jan. 1, 1953, but he left a perhaps unmatched body of work that not only shaped country music, but had an effect on a remarkable number of rock and folk songwriters. Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Tim Hardin, John Prine and Bruce Springsteen are just some of the artists who have spoken of Williams’ influence.


Though Williams also wrote novelties about domestic squabbles (“Mind Your Own Business”) and carefree celebrations (“Jambalaya”), his legacy rests in painfully detailed, yet eloquent expressions of romantic heartache--songs, like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Cold, Cold Heart,” that were also Top 10 pop hits for such artists as Joni James and Tony Bennett.

But no one--not even Ray Charles--sang Williams’ songs with as much conviction and unfiltered hurt as Williams himself. There is a sadness and isolation in recordings such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” that has rarely been matched in any genre of popular music.

The sound quality of the CD is a bit ragged (three of the songs were taken from 78-r.p.m. records because the original tapes were unavailable), but it’s not enough to detract from the soulfulness of the music. An essential package for anyone interested in pop history--or pop artistry. On a scale of 1 (poor) to 4 (excellent): ****.

Now when is Columbia going to release Lefty Frizzell--another great country artist from the same period--in CD?


MORE COUNTRY: For those who want to go further back in country music, these historical packages were just released in CD:

“Ragged But Right--Great Country String Bands of the 1930s” (RCA)--Billy Altman, who is also executive producer of RCA’s Heritage Series, supplies excellent liner notes that describe the history and importance of the artists in this 50-minute collection. They range from Riley Puckett and Ted Hawkins (who perform “Ragged But Right,” a traditional song that was a big country hit in the ‘50s for George Jones) and Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers (offering a version of “Ida Red,” the musical model for Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”).***

“Are You From Dixie?--Great Country Brother Teams of the 1930s” (RCA)--This 48-minute retrospective features three songs each by six classic brother teams, ranging from Lone Star Cowboys (who wrote the country favorite, “Just Because”) and the Delmore Brothers to the Monroe Brothers (Charlie and bluegrass king Bill).***

BONUS TRACKS: The CD and cassette versions of Dire Straits’ new “Money for Nothing” album contains one bonus track not found on the vinyl LP (a live version of “Telegraph Road”), while Fleetwood Mac’s “Greatest Hits” contains three bonus tracks (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Big Love” and “Over My Head”). . . . “The Best of Johnnie Ray” (a greatest hits set by the man whose intense, almost overwrought vocals on songs like “Cry” in the early ‘50s played an important role in opening a door on pop radio for R&B; music) has been released by Columbia as part of its budget Collector’s Choice series.