A Cure for the Long-Gone Lonesome Blues

By Ali, Lorraine | Newsweek, November 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Cure for the Long-Gone Lonesome Blues


Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek


Byline: Lorraine Ali

Jett Williams never met her father, Hank. Then she came across his lost recordings, and she heard him laugh at last.

According to Hank Williams, Mother's Best Flour makes "the best biscuit you ever hung a tooth in," and "On Top of Old Smokey" sounds best when sung the Appalachian way, "like Grandma taught it." Now unless you happened to tune into Nashville's WSM radio during one of Williams's daily shows in 1951, you likely missed these pearls of wisdom from country music's first superstar. You can hear them now thanks to an alert WSM employee who saved the show's recordings from the trash heap during a housecleaning at the station back in 1979, then held onto the acetate discs for the next 20 years. But when some of the radio shows began leaking out as bootleg singles, the Williams estate took notice and, eventually, control. Together with Time Life recordings, they carefully edited the two-dozen-plus discs, which contained two to three shows apiece, which equaled 143 "new" Hank songs. The result: "Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings," a three-CD box set of 54 songs due out this week online, in stores and at truck stops from Bangor, Maine, to Barstow, Calif.

Fifty-five years after his death, Hank Williams is back in never-released versions of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin'," as well as songs that were never recorded commercially by Williams, such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Cherokee Boogie." The recordings are so clear and intimate, you can hear Williams, then 27, chide his band members (known as the Drifting Cowboys) for hitting bum notes and joke about how he's "wrote so many songs with the same tune," he forgot "which a one" he's singing. "The thing that's so unbelievable about these recordings is that you get to hear my dad talk, laugh, tell jokes," says singer-songwriter Jett Williams, who runs her father's estate with her half brother, Hank Jr. "You actually get to meet the man, Hank Williams. Unlike Elvis, there's very little footage or recordings of just him being him. But during these shows he tells you why he wrote a song, what his favorite song was, and you can even tell Dad had a bad back because you hear him groan when he gets up out of his chair." As enlightening as the album may be for Williams's fans, it was a life-changing revelation for his daughter. Jett Williams never met her father. For the first two decades of her life, she didn't even know he was her father.

Jett was born five days after Hank Williams, at only 29, died on New Year's Day 1953. Her mother, Bobbie Jett, was not married to Williams but gave Hank's mother, Lillian Stone, custody of the infant before moving from Montgomery, Ala., to California. Stone legally adopted the baby girl, only to die months after the child's second birthday. She left the toddler in the custody of her daughter, Irene Williams, but Hank's sister made "Baby Jett" (as she's referred to in ensuing legal documents) a ward of the state of Alabama, making it nearly impossible for her to unearth her lineage--or inherit any of the family money. Jett went from foster home to foster home until she was adopted by a childless couple, the Deuprees, in 1959. They named their daughter Cathy, and when she turned 14, the Deuprees learned of her possible connection to Grand Ole Opry royalty. The mention of a baby girl with a history similar to their daughter's surfaced in a 1967 family lawsuit--there were a lot of those--over Williams's publishing that involved Williams's first wife, Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams Jr.), sister Irene and Acuff-Rose Music. Still, the couple kept the suspicion that the lawsuit had raised from their adopted daughter, who says no one ever talked about her past. "When you ask your parents once or twice [about where you came from] and they say they don't know, you believe them and you stop asking," she says before joking: "And I'd seen the movie 'Your Cheatin' Heart. …

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