Mother's Best, Hank's Best: A Conversation With Jett Williams and the Students

Over the past few weeks, Hank Williams' daughter Jett has been interviewed by many news organizations and media outlets regarding the release of Time Life's Grammy-seducing box set of the legend's Mother's Best radio shows from the fifties. Jett also graciously allowed not only this interviewer to quiz her about the release and being a member of the Williams dynasty, but also a class of bright-eyed radio broadcast students from Iowa's MUM who participated and were amazed by what they heard. The discussion was lively, informative, full of intimate stories, and one of the most enjoyable exchanges this interviewer has ever participated in or witnessed.

Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best
A Conversation with Jett Williams

Mike Ragogna: How are you, Jett?

Jett Williams: I'm doing fantastic.

MR: Nice. I heard you were in New York recently promoting a certain box set.

JW: Exactly, the enthusiasm for the Mother's Best radio shows that my father did back in '51 was absolutely awesome. One of the things that impressed me was the appreciation from an NPR-type interview on the radio to a live television interview with Fox & Friends. We covered the whole spectrum of media, whether it was radio or television, and the excitement and appreciation was just off the charts.

MR: Regarding the elements of The Complete Mother's Best release, I was especially happy that Colin Escott wrote the liner notes. He's one of my heroes.

JW: I'm going to be with him on Sunday. We're going to Washington, D.C., to do the Diane Rehm show. He is probably, I think, the leading historical expert on my dad and country music that there is.

MR: He is amazing. Now, years ago, I worked for Universal's music division, and I remember these recordings came in for us to evaluate for purchase. Your family always kind of knew that these tracks were very important, didn't you?

JW: Oh, absolutely. What you got was a bootleg copy.

MR: But it was a bootleg in order to review, right?

JW: No, it was a bootleg to sell.

MR: Oh, is that right? Someone was trying to sell us a bootleg?

JW: What happened was that Les Leverett rescued these acetates, part of them were duplicated, and that's what they tried to pitch for sale. Then, when I got the acetates, they tried to do an infomercial to commercialize these with this company out of Texas, and Hank Jr. and I sued as the children of the estate. Then, Universal jumped in and said they owned them.

MR: That was because they had an exclusive contract with your father, right?

JW: Well, that's what they said, but Hank Jr. and I prevailed in the lower courts and on appeal, and the courts ruled that these belonged to the estate of Hank Williams. So, when we got clear title on them, we were able to pick and choose who we wanted to work with and how we wanted it put out. Before that, these always belonged to the estate of Hank Williams, and what went out was not legal.

MR: Well, that clears all that up. Jett, can you give us an overview as to what is in this box set? I know there are rarities, such as it being the first appearance of Hank singing "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" and "On Top Of Old Smokey."

JW: For one, you're picking one-hundred four different songs, and unless you were listening in the year '51, you would never have heard him sing that song or that version of a song. Everyone knows, say, "Cold, Cold Heart," but every time you sing that live, you don't sing it exactly the same way. The other important aspect, to me, is that you get to meet the guy, Hank Williams, because he's MC-ing the show -- he's telling you jokes, telling you why he wrote the song, why he sings the song, where he's going, what he's going to be doing, what he likes, and what his favorite food is. So, not only do you capture the magic of his song delivery and get to hear songs that he wrote, but you also get to hear him hit songs by someone else, like Roy Acuff. It's great to be able to meet the guy, Hank Williams, because we've never had that part of him.

MR: And this is because of the intimacy of it being a radio show.

JW: Exactly. One thing that we did in the transfer from the acetates over to what we released is, if you listen carefully, you can hear the ambient noise in the background -- moving chairs and maybe someone coughing. We wanted to have it as if it were a true live performance, so all we did on the transfer is take out some pops and hiss, and try to make sure that the seventy-two shows were at close to the same level. That way you wouldn't have one that came out really bright and the next one really low. The engineers tried to make sure that they were as close as possible without doing anything with today's technology that would violate the intimacy and purity of these recordings.

MR: Can you describe what the Mother's Best radio show was back in the day?

JW: It was a flour company, and they had rented the WSM studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and my dad was the sponsor for the radio show. It was a fifteen-minute radio show that went out every morning at 7:15, and the main object was to promote and sell Mother's Best flour. You'd hear my dad say things like, "The best biscuit you ever hung a tooth in." Then, they would also promote things like feed for chicken and cattle, so that was the audience that they targeted -- rural America at 7:15, when Mama's putting the biscuits in the oven and Daddy's going to milk the cow. That was the way of life in the America of '51, and that's why we made the box set as though it's something you would hear if you turned the radio on in '51.

MR: And, of course, Hank repeated songs on various broadcasts, so there are redundant titles. But like you said earlier, all the songs are different performances.

JW: Exactly. Sometimes, when you're feeling good and the band's clicking, it's one version; but if you're not feeling good -- say your allergies are bothering you or whatever... that's what makes these recordings so fantastic. The fidelity and quality are as good, if not better than the MGM masters. But there's also an energy and a magic because, with radio, when it goes out, it's out and there is no take-back.

MR: And we're talking about 1951, which is why acetates are the medium for even the original studio recordings of your dad.

JW: Yes. They were designed for a one time play, and they played from the inside out. When they pushed the record button they would put this disk on, drop the needle to it, and if you made a mistake it was there. If you wanted to stop, then they had to throw the disk away and start all over again. Colin said that a career could be made by how many disks you had to throw away because every time they had to throw something away, it cost money. So, if you could do things in one take, the sponsors like that and the record companies like that because you weren't costing them a lot of extra money for your mistakes.

MR: Right. Most people don't realize that discs predated recording tape.

JW: Exactly. I think it was so new that they hadn't gotten into using it yet, especially on a radio show. The thing about an acetate that's really important is that they're very, very fragile. And like I said, they were really meant for a one-time play -- they were not meant to play over and over again. So, it's really a miracle that they survived a possible trip to the dumpster and somewhat improper storage to still have the quality that we were able to get from them in the transfer process.

MR: Yes, it's good to remember that these acetates were really only meant for that one time play, and radio stations received these for broadcast.

JW: Exactly. One of the keys to us winning the court case was that my dad had agreed to record the show for a one time play, but not to be commercially exploited.

MR: There you go. Now, in those days, there were no exclusive contracts, right?

JW: No, and the record company didn't win because all they had were the masters that they had paid for. The lawyers in the entertainment business had not gotten nearly as savvy as they are today, where when you sign a contract, and then everything you think, they own. The deal my dad had was just to go in and do masters because duplication and commercial exploitation had not... no one in their wildest dreams, back in '51, would have ever thought you could do what we can do today.

MR: In those days, there was this unbelievable amount of music out there for broadcast on discs, and today, everyone backs off of ownership claims. For instance, there are all those gray area NBC broadcasts.

JW: At a certain point in time, they would probably revert back to the artist just like these because what that artist agreed to was a one time broadcast, not for an NBC to repackage it and put it out years later. What everyone was agreeing to, at that point in time, was just for a live broadcast, and that was it. No one, at that time, really had the capability to duplicate it because even if they could, people in the United States couldn't even buy a television, let alone some high priced thing to play a piece of tape on.

MR: Because of its historical importance, there must be some high expectations for this box set.

JW: There are high expectations because I think Time Life has done such a superb job of putting the presentation together. Also, as I said, there are one-hundred forty-three songs that have never been released before. Never before, and never again, I would venture to say, will anything of this magnitude happen again in the music world.

MR: Right, and Hank Williams is such an important figure in American culture, as well as being a country music icon.

JW: Well, I was honored to go to New York in May to receive the Pulitzer Prize for him at Columbia University. Actually, part of this box set is what the committee heard, and they honored him for his craftsmanship as a songwriter that made country music a major force in music, and also a cultural force in our everyday life.

MR: Nicely said. Jett, may I ask you a personal question delicately?

JW: (laughs) That sounds like a country song. Yes.

MR: Okay. Can you describe how you fit into the Hank Williams dynasty? I think most people have assumed it's just Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr.

JW: Where I fit in the Hank Williams family tradition and dynasty is as his daughter and co-owner of the estate of my father, and also as the executive producer of this box set, I have been given the privilege to stand in his stead and try to make decisions for his memory, his music, and his legacy that, if he were alive today, he would say, "That's the way I want it done."

MR: Cool. By the way, I'm being joined at the station today by a radio broadcast class in MUM's Media & Communication department, and they have some questions, so we're going to start up with that. Is that okay?

JW: Sure, I'm excited about this.

MR: Beautiful.

Aja Sumpter: Earlier you mentioned working to handle the legalities with your brother, and I have read that initially, he wasn't very open to having a relationship with you. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with him now, and how was that established?

JW: When I first started, of course, we ended up suing each other along with all of the publishers. I won that lawsuit, Hank Jr. and I met, and we put our arms around each other. We co-owned the estate, and actually, the box set has brought us closer together. When you read the book, he does the forward, I do the afterward, and, in fact, just last week, we both signed several of the box sets to go to charities. So, you can actually get a box set co-signed by Hank Jr./Jett Williams. One thing that we both have agreed on is that we are going to put our dad's memory and music first, and that we would get along.

MR: What are some of the charities?

JW: That I don't know because they are yet to be determined. I think we signed about ten, and some of them are going to go to promotion and things like that. But we're also both going to keep a couple just to have something that we're both very proud of for the estate to be able to auction for a worthy cause.

MR: Speaking of worthy causes, has anyone thought about pitching the box to the Grammy Awards this year?

JW: Truth be known, yes. There are a couple of other great box sets that have been released, so I think it's going to be some stiff competition. But one of the advantages we have is that this is unreleased material, as opposed to a box set just repackaging what has already been done.

MR: You've got to think that with a Hank Williams project including one-hundred forty-three songs that have never been released before, you've got a pretty good shot.

JW: I hope so. Also, I think Time Life has raised the bar on the packaging. As opposed to just a box set with a book and some CDs, here you get a '51 radio, fifteen CDs, a DVD, a book, and a map of where he was when these were broadcast. There's a lot of detail and love in this box, and it's much more than just a box set.

MR: Where was he when these were broadcast? What kinds of venues?

JW: It was in seventy-two different cities. When you get the box set, you can open up the map and find out where each show was done.

MR: Thanks. We have more questions from the class.

Mirjam Stueken: I am from Germany, so I haven't heard of your dad before. What is your favorite song by your father, and what songs would you recommend I listen to of your father's if I really want to know his music?

JW: Well, you said you were from Germany, right?

MS: Yes.

JW: Actually, my dad went to Germany in the late '40s for the USO, and I've had the honor of going to Germany and performing. My favorite is "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." That song is a visual song and a sensory type song, but it's also about missing someone or something. I don't care who you are or where you're from, your heart breaks like mine, and if you hear that song you might hear a little bit of home sickness too.

MS: Thank you.

MR: Victim number three?

Ben Aldrich: I recently inherited my father's vinyl collection and was pleased to see that I had three or four Hank recordings. I'm very happy that this box set is being released all at once rather than being spread out over many different CDs. Are there any plans to release this box set on vinyl?

JW: We actually put out one big 78 vinyl (version).

BA: That's awesome.

JW: It's in the dust jacket and everything. I don't know how many were released, but we did put one out on vinyl. I need to remind Time Life about that because that was about four years ago. What is important about the vinyl is the dust jacket and the historical photos, but also to read where it was formatted and who was on the sessions. A lot of times, people buy vinyl and throw the dust jackets away.

BA: Also, nothing smells quite like a collection of old dust jackets.

(class laughs)

JW: Exactly. You get a little bit of mold on them, and they're good to go.

MR: Oh, hey stranger. Got a question?

Theo Shier: Were you interested in and inspired by country music before you found out who your father was or did that come after?

JW: Well, I grew up in Alabama, and when you're from Alabama, you know Hank Williams and Bear Bryant. I sang all kinds of music, but I sang Hank Williams music before I knew that he was my dad. At the age that I am, I got to grow up in some of the greatest years of music -- the '50s through the '70s. We were lucky because we only had an AM station, so you only got to hear what they played, and I remember hearing a song and sitting up all night trying to figure out how to play that song.

MR: Spinning off of that question, what was your initial reaction to finding out that Hank Williams was your dad?

JW: Well, being an adopted child and going on the search, I wanted to find out who I was and what happened. I was prepared to never find that out, but I was hoping, and I was hoping to get the answers I wanted to hear. When I found out that Hank Williams was my father, the reason I made the announcement was because I was shown that my father had signed a pre-birth custody contract three months before I was born in which it says, "I am the father, this is my baby, and I want to take this baby to live with me." He signed this at his lawyer's office, and it was notarized, so I know that my dad wanted me. He died on January 1st, they buried him on the 4th, and I was born on the 6th -- five days after he died. I know that my dad knew that I was going to be born and that he wanted me. Had he been my father but didn't want to have anything to do with me, we would not be having this conversation today.

MR: Beautiful. When you found out about Hank being your dad, did that become a "this changes everything" sort of moment?

JW: Well, when I made that announcement, my life changed dramatically because once you step out in the public, there is no turning back. In the lawsuits, the attorneys and administrators from my father's estate kept the estate open past my twenty-first birthday and never notified me that there was money all those years in a trust for me. The courts ruled that they knew who I was, where I was, and that they had made a conscious decision not to notify me. So, the courts ruled that I was defrauded -- for twenty-three years they collected their legal fees, keeping it in a trust for me, but when the time came, they said, "We've buried her, she doesn't know who she is." It was in writing, "Let's not notify her. Let sleeping dogs lie. She'll never find out."

MR: You've got to love lawyers.

JW: Well, I married one -- I hired him, and then I married him, so here I am.

MR: Oops, sorry. (laughs) Alrighty then, who else has a question?

Regine Constance: Speaking of lawyers, you mentioned earlier that back in your father's time, lawyers had more integrity maybe. Based on what you know about lawyers now, if somebody were to start in the music business, what advice what you give them?

JW: Well, if you're going to start in the music business and there are some real opportunities there, you've got to get an attorney that you believe is going to be watching out for you. If you're in the entertainment business and you get to be in that one percent, you're talking about multi-million dollar contracts, and you'd better make sure because you can't say, "Well, I didn't know." You have to make sure that you get an attorney that has that experience, and definitely someone who is a contract lawyer in the entertainment business because today, they have it down to an art form.

RC: Thank you.

MR: Jett, that's a nice lead in to a question I ask everyone I inetrview. What is your advice in general to someone entering the music scene now?

JW: As a new artist, hopefully what you're doing... the record company or the industry will do it the way you want it done. If not, you've got to get where you're grounded, and then do exactly what you want to do, the way you want to do it. If you come to Nashville right now -- today's music is visual in that people are looking at music, but not really listening to it. I think that you've got to come in and play that game or they're just going to shut you out the door, which is very unfortunate, but if you can get in and get established, then you can run with everything you've got.

MR: And we've got another question here.

Maire Warring: Just listening to you live like this and hearing your story is really heartwarming. So, first off, I want to say thank you. You've got a lot of courage, and it's a great story. Thank you for being so tenacious and following your dream.

JW: Well, if you get the chance, I have an autobiography out that tells the whole story. The book was picked as one of the top one-hundred books in the country, and it was put into braille and audio for the visual and hearing impaired and placed in every library in the country. I always tell people that if I had made it up, it wouldn't be this good.

MR: What's the title?

JW: Lost & Found: The Story Of Hank Williams' Daughter.

MW: I am a film student and a couple of us here in the media communications department at the school are interested in the possibility of doing a documentary of you. Would you be interested?

JW: Yes, I would. We'd have to talk to my husband. Actually, a company out of Canada just did a documentary that is supposed to air pretty soon, but I don't know if it's going to air in the United States. You're more than welcome to contact us and see what we could work out because I'd be more than glad to work with you all.

MW: Thank you.

MR: Who else?

Steve Gorman: I was looking on your website and saw the story about your remarkable journey, and I was wondering if there was maybe a movie in the works for that?

JW: Well, on my life, we signed a couple of deals. Hank Jr. and I have signed with Universal Studios to put out a full-length motion picture. There is a movie coming out called The Ride, which is not sanctioned by the estate, but the one Hank Jr. and I are working with is out of Hollywood with Universal and with major players. Right now, that's what I'm going to be focusing on at the beginning of this coming year. Then, my personal hope is that once we get my dad's movie out there, somewhere in that movie, you'll see him sign that contract I talked about. Then, when he dies, hopefully people will walk out and say, "What happened to that baby?" Then, maybe my story could be the part two of the initial Hank Williams movie.

MR: With our culture, it seems you have to take these concepts in bite sizes anyway.

JW: Well, with my dad just getting the Pulitzer, the box set coming out, and then with the movie, it just seems like it's "Hank Time" right now.

MR: (laughs) And speaking of Hank Time, it's Owen Time...

Owen Blake: Did your adopted parents encourage you to pursue music, or were you kind of born loving music?

JW: Well, the last adopted parents I had did not hold me back. They did not have any musical tendencies -- we had a stereo and they listened to music and everything -- but I was about ten, and I went to a summer camp and heard someone play guitar. So, I came home and asked my adopted mother if I could learn to play. Next thing I know, she enrolls me in the music department at a Jesuit college, and a Jesuit priest ends up teaching me music when I was ten years old. So, I started playing when I was ten, but I have pictures from when I was with my grandmother -- Hank's mother -- on her front steps when I was two, and I've got a cowboy hat and guitar.

MR: That's sweet. We have another question.

Milad Javadi: As an artist, what inspires you the most?

JW: I think life. There is the upside of life, and then there's the downside of life, and if you just take real situations and life experiences as an artist. You can tune in to those and draw on your personal experiences, you can make that scene or that record be real. That's the secret, I think, in being an artist, and that's why my dad was so great -- when you heard him talk about his heart breaking, you felt his heart breaking. He wasn't just singing the words, he was gut singing to you.

MR: When you were finally entrenched in all the Williams family, its traditions, and the unit itself, were there any stories that you found out about your dad that you find most endearing?

JW: There are stories that I've heard about the good that he did. I was up in Michigan and met a lady with a toddler's coat that had a lot of age on it. This lady told me that her family was poor and her mother told her that when she was downtown in Detroit, this cowboy was crossing the road, looked down and handed her some money saying, "Buy that youngin' a good winter coat." She said, "This is that coat that your dad bought for me."

MR: Wow, that's really touching.

JW: Another story I heard was that my dad was down in Alabama, and, back then, they didn't write checks, so people had cash and money clips for things. This guy told me that my dad and him went and got barbecue, and after they left, this lady came running down the road yelling, "Mr. Hank, Mr. Hank, you dropped your money clip." He said my dad looked at the money clip, took out all the money, and said, "Thank you, Honey," then, walked off.

I've got one more that I want to tell you. There was a big older DJ who is no longer alive that called me and said, "I want to tell you a story." He said, "My child was born with a harelip." Now, we're talking fifty years ago, so cosmetic surgery was not as convenient as it is today. He told me that my dad called him and said, "I'm going to sign a blank check, and you get that little youngin' of yours whatever he needs." The man said that he told my dad that the station he worked for had full insurance and that everything would be covered, but he just wanted me to know that my dad gave him a blank check to take care of his child. It's stories like that that you don't get to hear about Hank Williams, where you can see all the goodness and what a kind person he really was.

MR: Did Colin go into any interesting stories like that in the liner notes or was that not the mission?

JW: The booklet, so to speak -- that's kind of an injustice because it's one-hundred plus pages. Some of the booklet is old Hank history, but there is a lot of new stuff in there too, and photos that people have not seen. He did a superb job, as he always does.

MR: Right. We have another question.

Kasia Braband: As an artist myself, I was wondering what the driving force is behind your creativity? Is there anything specific you want to give to people and what is the reason you do that?

JW: I think the biggest drive that I've found, in my music and my dad's, is that whether it's new or old, you can create a memory for that person or you can allow that person to travel back and be able to recall memories of their parents or a lost love. That, to me, is one of the main motivations -- to achieve something that will allow people to make a memory from that music.

MR: Now, we have another question, this one from the General Manager here at solar powered KRUU-FM, James Moore, aka Hank James.

James Moore: Hey Jett, thank you very much. I'm actually teaching this class, and I really appreciate you taking some time with us. I'm being a bad example because when we're asking questions we should just get to it, but I'm so honored to speak with you that I'm going to say more than I should. At one period in my life, I was working with an international organization, and I started playing your father's songs. I ended up staying up the whole night two nights in a row, and I finally realized it was time for me to do something else. I had been a musician all my life, and I actually called myself "Hank James" for an entire year and did nothing but Hank Williams songs. Having said that...

MR: Wait, I want to hear Jett's reaction to that. Jett?

JW: I've got a big smile on my face. Believe me, you're not the only one. George Jones told me that he lived with my dad and he had a cardboard cutout that he used to ride around in the car with.

JM: (laughs) Of course, George Jones would outdo me -- that is fabulous.

JW: You're keeping good company.

JM: Well, thank you. I also had the great joy, just this last year, to work with a musician's club in town that did a Heart Of Country show, and I was able to sing "Lovesick Blues" with pedal steel, fiddle, and stand-up bass, and it was another one of those moments in my life that really fulfilled me. Having said all that, Bob Dylan said that no one has ever written a lonesome song like your father, and Hank was known as the "Hillbilly Shakespeare." I was personally delighted when your father was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Could you reflect a little further on that?

JW: Well, that's the highest award an American can get, and they did give it to him for his abilities as a wordsmith. I talked about the song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and when you hear those words, "The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are, I'm so lonesome I could cry." The meter is perfect, the lines are perfect, the song is perfect, and that's why Hank Williams is in the one percent of one percent.

MR: How do you explain how he got there, Jett? It's such a wonderful achievement for a human being to be able to write like that -- how did he get to that level of talent?

JW: I think the good Lord gave him one of the most special gifts that allowed him to go through the eye of a needle to create. Now, with the box set of his Mother's Best shows, this increases his catalog by fifty percent. So, to me those are just staggering statistics.

MR: Right. We have just one more question, and then we'll all say goodbye, is that okay?

JW: That will be fine.

Mirjam Stueken: How does the music of your dad influence your music?

JW: Well, it influences mine because one of his great musical gifts is that he kept songs in three chords and lyrics clean and simple as opposed to some songs --especially today -- that are way too wordy and don't have melodies. He's also well rounded as a writer -- he writes about being lonesome, he writes about being happy, he writes "Hey Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "You're Cheatin' Heart," he writes blues, and he writes waltzes. So, to me, when you study his songwriting, I think he's one of the great craftsman that you can actually sit down to read his music and play his melodies, and you can learn a great deal from the way he structured his music.

MS: Thank you. I really like your accent, by the way.

JW: You're not going to believe this, but I've lost most of it because of living in Washington, D.C., and here in Tennessee. When I lived in the deep, deep South (Jett affecting an exaggerated Southern accent), I kind of sounded something like this.

(class laughs)

JM: I just wanted to reflect with the class about the power of radio broadcasting. Hank Williams got his start on the radio, and it was the Internet of the time, really. Once again, thank you so much, Jett. I'll turn it to you, Mike.

MR: Jett, you shared so much, and I really appreciate your generosity with all of us today, especially the students. My last question is what is your prediction of Hank Williams' importance over the next thirty or forty years?

JW: Well, I think the importance is that he is going to be -- especially with the Internet, and the media technology that we have from local radio, to satellite radio, to cable television, movies, and all of that -- I think that his notoriety is only going to get bigger and bigger because someone may have never heard of Hank Williams before, but once they hear him and get into that mode, then you get caught up in it. It's generational, and that's why his memory is still alive today and it's only going to get bigger.

MR: Beautiful. Thank you so much Jett for coming to visit us at Solar-Powered KRUU-FM.

(class applauds)

JW: Oh, my pleasure.

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney.

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