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A Hank Williams Treasure Trove

The release of the only known recording of Hank Williams singing “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” has once again shone a spotlight on one of the greatest popular songs ever recorded.

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was, of course, made famous by Willie Nelson in his classic 1975 theme album Red Headed Stranger. It was his first number one hit single and not only revived Nelson’s career, but set him on the road to stardom.

Hank’s version is on a pre-release single to promote a 6-CD collection of 144 performances from a radio show he began hosting on WSM, Nashville, in 1951.

There are countless recordings of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, from an artist calling himself Ray Dylan – that’s right Ray not Bob – to an obscure country artist Suzanne Prentice, hardly known outside her native New Zealand, if indeed there.

Then you add the big guns, like Elvis, alongside George Jones, Conway Twitty, Hank Snow, Charley Pride etc. There is even a funky version by UB40 and only last month The Mavericks included the song in a 30th anniversary album paying tribute to the music which drove their success.

The song was written by legendary songwriter/producer Fred Rose and first recorded in 1947 by Roy Acuff. Rose and Acuff, a Grand Ole Opry star, had by then established a successful Nashville music publishing company Acuff-Rose Music. And Hank was to become their most popular client.

But it seems Hank never recorded “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” for Acuff-Rose. This rare recording was indeed discovered decades later when discs of his radio shows were actually rescued at the last minute from being disposed at a local dump.

There have been various forms of performances, by different artists, released over the years from this particular show - sponsored by the Mother’s Best Flour Company. But this is the first time the Williams’ WSM songs have been collected as a stand-alone compilation. They will be released in February as part of an elaborate book-CD package titled Hank Williams: Pictures From Life’s Other Side – The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings.

The CD’s will of course include Hank’s live recording of such hits like “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Lovesick Blues,” but it is the only-known versions of songs like “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” which have all the critics clamouring to de-syphon!

Hank’s song sits closer to Willie’s classic than the Acuff original, which has a somewhat polka rhythm, complete with accordion sitting oddly alongside a steel guitar. Hank’s recording has him making a brief intro – this is a radio track after all – where he announces, in his best southern drawl: “It’s a pretty song we are going to start with this morning … awfully pretty ... Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

And pretty, he makes it such! For the Williams version is – surprise, surprise – more heart-breaking. Hank is at his mournful best and so is the band – presumably the Drifting Cowboys though this was about the time the most famous line-up disbanded. There is a wonderful fiddle bridge, a bridge Hank nicely acknowledges with a quick back-announce: “ … the boys thought they’d get out of playing that in the middle. I mean Rivers fixed it. He just built a bridge right across it there and they had to use it up (laughter).” He is obviously referring to long-time fiddle-player Jerry Rivers.

Willie’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is famous for its sparseness – so sparse, so the story goes, the executives at Columbia Records thought his original was a demo tape. There is no steel guitar or fiddle. And, unlike both Acuff and Williams, Nelson drops Fred Rose’s famous final verse:

Now my hair has turned to silver

All my life I’ve loved in vain

I can see her star in heaven

Blue eyes crying in the rain

As a result, the Hank recording is timed at 3 min 18 sec (without intro & outro), about a minute longer than Willie.

One question remains about the Hank Williams treatment. Was it live, as in live to air? Yes it was a radio version, but it is known that due to his dense tour schedule, several of his 15-minute radio shows for WSM were prerecorded. No matter, there is still the soft, smooth, almost tear-jerking, sincerity that this wonderful, but troubled, artist was famous for!

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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