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Archive Interview: Jett Williams on Her Father Hank Williams (2011)

We are embarking on a project to republish all of our interviews, over the years, with some of great artists of the rock era.  Some were originally published on this page while others will be transcripts from our podcast. 

Hank Williams is considered one of the great musical artists of the last century, something he accomplished in a short 29 years.  After his death, all we were left with was just those original recordings of songs like Hey, Good Lookin', I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Lovesick Blues, Cold, Cold Heart and many more.

That was all there was until this past year and the release of the Mother's Best Recordings, a massive sixteen-disc box set of performances made for Nashville's WSM radio.  Hank hosted a daily 15-minute show for Mother's Best Flour, singing his own songs along with traditional music and a few covers (see our original story with the full track list here).  Because of his extensive touring schedule, he wasn't able to be in the radio studio every morning, so a total of 72 shows were recorded to acetate for later airing.

Luckily for the music world, those acetates were preserved, first by the station and then through the hands of collectors, eventually making their way to William's son and daughter, Hank, Jr. and Jett.  After a lengthy court battle, the rights for the programs were awarded to the Williams estate who brought them to the public.

We were honored to have a conversation with Jett Williams, who has quite the story of loss and legal battles herself.   Jett was born five days after the death of her father and was given up by her birth mother.  Hank's own mother, Lillian, took Jett home from the hospital and adopted her but passed away a little over a year later.

Jett was put into the foster system and lived with a number of families, not knowing her legacy.  It wasn't until the early 80's that she started a search for her birth parents and, once finding out she was the daughter of Hank, fighting a successful legal battle to be recognized as a heir to his estate.

The following is our interview with Jett, talking about the Mother's Best release, her father's legacy, upcoming movies on his life, Jett's own music and the state of country today.

Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.

Oh, man, I'll tell you. I am still flying.  I don't know if you know this but each area has a chapter of the Grammys like New York, and Nashville had their party this past Tuesday which I went to and it was absolutely fantastic.  It was kind of more like a pep rally of everybody from the country music Nashville area being there congratulating.  Its really amazing the numbers, overall, of how many people from country music and Nashville are nominated for Grammys.

You get the chance for nominations not only from the country awards but you get to spread out over Americana and the historical and even into some of the pop categories.  There are a lot of nominations this year.

Like I said it really was like a pep rally because spirits were really high, a lot of hugs and kisses and high fives and everything.  There was a lot of pride there, too.  I'd have to say that.

The one thing I was disappointed with was that it didn't get a nomination in the Best Package.

They were asking me this the other night and I said, if I had my wishes, I was really hoping for, of course, the Historical, the Packaging and the Box Set.  Then I told someone, but, if you had to pick one…the packaging and the box sets are cosmetic.  What the historical is, I think, it includes packaging and box set as part of the whole equation bit its what is IN that box set and that packaging that is the music lifeblood.

It's an amazing album from the historical standpoint and the way it has built up the known repertoire of Hank.  You know, it's also important, I think, that it could be used in college classes on the history of radio and broadcasting because I think a lot of people don't realize how radio was at that time with these fifteen and thirty minute shows done live in the studio with live music.  I think it works really well from that historical standpoint, also.

You are absolutely right because you have got to have a radio voice because all people hear on the radio is that voice.  They can't see your facial expressions, and there was an interesting point brought up that most people listen to the radio by themselves.  You're either in your car or, in the olden days, most of the time you would turn the radio on in the barn or in the kitchen.  There were a few where you sat around and listened to The Shadow but, for the most part, it was a very intimate relationship between who was on the radio and who was listening.

I did do an interview with a college and it was really interesting.  It was a communications broadcasting class that called and, of course, they put me on the speaker phone and then the students asked me questions about the Mother's Best radio shows.  It was really interesting to hear the students.  They were all prepared and the teacher called and said they were going to give this seminar and would I basically be a telephone person.  It went really well but you are absolutely right.

I mean, when I heard old radio shows I thought "Good lord, this is going to be scratchy" and all but what people don't realize is that when we did the transfer, we did little if anything at all.  When you have 72 shows, you want to make sure that, when you go from one show to the other show that you try to keep it as consistent as possible without a change in quality.  On the fidelity, they say it's better than the MGM masters and so we're just so proud of it.

I was going to ask you if you had to do a lot of cleaning up because I did notice in listening, some of the shows were near perfect but then you have a few, like the Aunt Jemima audition, which were a little more scratchy, but that may have come from a slightly different source.

The thing about transferring them, the acetate, which you know is like a metal disc…when we were transferring them we actually got a group of people and we just asked them to sit in there and let their ears hear because they would play with one gauge needle and then change the needle.  You had to try to pick the best needle for each acetate for the way it actually grooved out.  You couldn't just use the same needle on every single one of them because some of them were deeper and some were a little bit more shallow.  As far as cleaning the acetates, some of these had been transferred back in the 70's to a reel-to-reel which then had to be baked and we played them and got some of the recordings off of it.  It was a painstaking labor of love.  We maybe tried to take out some pops and hisses but didn't use any kind of technology and we tried to leave as much in there.  If you really listen hard you'll hear people talking in the background or moving and so we tried to leave is so it was just as live and pure and intimate as if they came out of that radio that day.

That's how you make it a true historical document.  You want it to be as much as it was on the day of recording.

…and the same thing with leaving the mistakes in there.  The band starts in the wrong key or my Dad sings the wrong song.  I mean, they're few and far-between but I think that also gives it such a character.  The other thing I think, to me, as his daughter and as a Hank fan, this gives his fans and the world a chance to get to meet the guy Hank Williams. If you listen to the myth spinners and you believe everything you heard about him or read about him, he was the loneliest, saddest, drink-ingest forlorn fellow you would ever want to meet.  Here, it's interesting, in the morning he is as sharp as a tack.  He's laughing and telling jokes.  He's an M.C.  He's a backup singer.  He takes his show and pedal to the metal.  You can hear how quick his wit is and how sharp his mind is.  It really gives you two or three more dimensions of this guy Hank Williams then just this one the people, unfortunately, want to romanticize about.

I know you, yourself, had a long court battle with getting your name officially brought in with Hank and then there was another court battle that went along with the acetates.

Which is kind of funny because I always say lost daughter, lost recordings, both us are found.  Hank, Jr. and I fight each other and Hank, Jr. and I fight together.

When you started the whole court battle over the acetates, were you working together with the rest of the Williams family at that time?

Yes.  Of course it was just Hank, Jr. and I.  What happened was a bootleg copy had gotten out years ago before I even got the acetates, before they were given to me and we…when I say we, my husband, who was the attorney for the estate of my father…we were notified that someone was getting ready to do an infomercial and release a bootleg copy of Mother's Best.  With that, Hank Williams Jr's lawyers joined my husband…these were the same lawyers we had basically fought against before…we all joined forces together and we put an injunction against them to stop them and then Hank Jr. and I sued this company out of Texas.  We ended up having to sue Polydor and Polygram who, at that time, were the record companies who had our father's master recording contract and they said that they owned these recordings.

Did that go all the way to the Supreme Court? 

…of Tennessee.  What happened was, Hank, Jr. and I won at the lower court, the circuit court and the defendants, Polygram and the company, they appealed it to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  We won and we prevailed at that level.  At that time, what happened basically, was we were given what I call a clear title of ownership to the recordings and here's something that people don't realize.  Say you find something in the attic.  You may own that physical tape or acetate but you do not own what is on that.  That recording, it belongs to the person who recorded it or their estate.  You cannot commercially exploit something even if you have physical possession of the acetate.  They can look at them all day long and they can play them, but they can't then say "Well, I own it so I can do with it what I want."

Well, that's the way it should be, too.  I think you're starting to see in the music business, as the big companies lose their influence over everything, you're seeing a lot more releases from different artists as far as archived live concerts.  Things that they may not have felt they had the right to do twenty years ago.

Exactly.  One of the things in this lawsuit was that, basically, Polygram also tried this thing that they call blocking rights.  There is no such thing.  They said "You can't do that because it's going to hurt what I've got."  As in, they've got my dad singing Cold, Cold Heart.  Hank, Jr. and I have our dad singing Cold, Cold Heart.  They say "You can't use your version because I've got the master and that will hurt my sales."  Now, the court says we can do with it what we want so, say, somebody wants to use any of the songs we have for commercials, you have a little bit of competition, which is good.

When you actually had the rights to the acetates and were working on putting the package together, did you have to get into a lot of other rights acquisitions because he was doing songs from other writers?

When we were putting it together, we contacted all of the publishers and everyone and got license agreements to release all of this.  For most people, it's called the music business and it behooves people to agree to have their material released because it makes you money and it gives you recognition.  Of course a lot of those songs were PD [public domain], too.

I realize that there were a lot of traditional and much older songs, but I know there were also a few songs that were popular at that particular time by other artists that he was covering just for the show. 

That also tickles me, too when you can hear him doing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.  I think that is one of the very best versions I've heard anyone sing.

I was just listening to that the other night and there's an emotion in his voice that really came through.

I was talking to Tony Brown on Tuesday night and he had come out and I had played these for him in the beginning of the process and I had reminded me what he said to me that night.  Of course, he has produced Reba McEntire and Brooks and Dunn and Tricia Yearwood.  He sat out here and he was listening to it and he said "You know, Jett, I've always heard Hank Williams but I don't think I ever really listened to him."  I think a lot of us, through the years, have just heard that Hey, Good Lookin' song and you hear it but you never thought about it. Mother's Best actually makes you sit down, close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Everyone that's heard this, all over the world, people are saying "My God, this is unbelievable."

As far as you know, are there any other recordings of Hank that haven't made it into the marketplace.  For example, studio tapes with different takes of his songs.

As far as I know, not that, but we do have a live concert and we also have some of the Hank and Hezzie.  Then I have, and I am yet to play it which will be interesting, I have an acetate that Bob Helton gave me, who was a dear friend of my father's and very involved with him, and they had cut something in his kitchen on this acetate singing.  We were going to go to the Hall of Fame because a lot of these things you have to be really careful because sometimes you only get the one play out of them.

So, there are things but, as far as I know, there's not any studio.  Thank God these [the Mother's Best recordings] went to acetate because, if these had been on tape, they would have been just recorded over.  That's what they did in the old days.  They just recorded over on the same tape.

That's a problem not only with the radio but also with TV.  A lot of the early television shows are gone for exactly that reason.

Exactly.  So a lot of that in-the-studio stuff, I'm sure they just said "Take another retake" and backed it [the tape] up.  With these acetates, because of what they are made of, they survived.  So we were very fortunate that as much got put on those as we did.

On the DVD section of the set, I noticed that you kept referring to the late Don Helms as Uncle Don.  Did you get real close with the rest of the band?

Oh, yeah.  Uncle Don and Uncle Jerry.  I met them, I think it was around 1987 and I joined up with Don and Jerry and we went out on the road from 1989 until Jerry Rivers got sick and had liver cancer and then 'til Uncle Don…the long road trips were too hard on him.  I spent a tremendous amount of time on the stage with them, off of the stage with them.  I consider them my Uncles.  They shared a lot of memories and stories of their time with my Dad and I got to make a lot of memories with them.   

Sounds like you might have the makings of another book.

Oh, absolutely and then the other gentleman, Uncle Bill Lester, he was kind of a treasure trove that I think was overlooked over the years because he spent that eight months with my Dad and he had more stories to tell than I think anyone thought because I've noticed, in the past, it's the same people telling the same stories.  I thought Big Bill brought in a whole fresh air of everything.

In fact, to get back to Don, I know how emotional he got on the tape.  I believe that, when he walked out, he knew that was the last interview he was ever going to give.  I know in my heart, because that was the last time I saw him.

It wasn't very long after that he passed.

I think what happened was, when he started to really break down, that he knew this is the end.

That whole interview was very emotional and I'm glad that Time-Life…actually, I think it was Sam's Club…I think they were the ones that asked for additional content and what we thought was why not try to find the people that were actually there when this took place.  That would be a lot more personal for people to see the engineer, a band member and a regular guest through their eyes and ears and heart.

I was thinking the other day that it seems its time for a new biopic of Hank's life.  Is there any talk at all of doing that?

Actually, there's two movies.  One of them is already made and it should come out this year.  The name of the movie is The Last Ride.  I've been given a preview of it, my husband and I.  In the movie, they never mention the name Hank Williams, he never sings and he never strums the guitar.  That sounds just as strange as it can be but, what it is, the guy who is playing my Dad is traveling under an assumed name and so you know who it is.  It's one of the best movies I've seen in I can't remember when.

Now, Hank Jr. and I signed with Mark Abraham and Universal Studios to actually do more like a biopic movie and they're in the process of getting a script completed.

This other one, I think, will only seed the clouds for the other movie.  Be on the lookout. It's called The Last Ride and it's the last 72 hours of my Dad's life.  It is just really great.  I mean, I can't tell you how great I think it is.

The young man who plays my Dad is Henry Thomas, the guy who played in E.T.  If you go look at him, he sort of looks like my Dad.  I think it will catch on.  For example, they're doing this one scene…they're in the Cadillac, trying to get to the shows and they're trying to move everything along. They end up getting behind a truck of pigs on a back road.  So, here's the Cadillac and you're looking at the rear end of the pigs.  They're honking and the guy playing my Dad's having a fit and the driver'
s trying to get around them and they're playing On the Sunny Side of Life. Just cracks me up.  It's all these little double entendres that are working through the movie that are just so clever.  You see a real personal side of my Dad.

I'll look out for that one.  It would be good to see a straight forward biopic of your Dad, too, because things are done a lot different today in film then in the 60's when Your Cheatin' Heart was released. 

Oh, that was a disaster.

The other thing to keep in mind, my husband and I, we try to be the "Hank Truth Squad."  We told the biopic people we were working with, "If you would just tell the truth…just tell it the way it happened."  My Dad's memory and his legacy deserves a true biopic.  When people see it on television and they see it in the movies, they believe it.  It's human nature.  So, we really tried to stand on "you don't need to spin it this way or that way. Just tell it like it is."  His story is just so fascinating, to be a shooting star and to accomplish what he did in such a short time.

I was able to receive the Pulitzer Prize for him this past May.  You're talking about William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway.  I'm just thrilled to death that the committee honored him with that award.

I wanted to get a chance to talk to you about your music, also.  Honk! was your third album, right?

Yes and, in fact, I've just gone in to cut a new album and I'm going 360. I'm going back to bare-bones traditional country music.  Just the fiddle, the steel; even the drums are just on brushes.  In fact, the music I'm doing now, you more feel the drums than hear them.  I'm going back to the more traditional, deep country sound and I think, with the tone of my voice, that's where I need to be.  I would say Hank's [Jr.] more of a commercial type produced album.  I've decided I've listened to what everybody says and I think I want to go do just what I like to do and so I've decided I'm going to do it myself.

Actually, I did write and record some stuff and that movie, The Last Ride, they called and took some of those songs and are putting them onto the soundtrack.  That was an indicator to me that that's where I needed to be.

I know on the albums, you try and do a couple of Hank Williams songs on each one.  Do you write most of the other music?

Yes I do and, then, on my Dad's stuff, what I try to do, is just put a little bit different interpretation on it as opposed to trying to do it just from beginning to end the same.  As I've said, I'm just going back to the more basic.

In fact, on The Last Ride, they had the movie made and then, after I saw it, they asked if I would do something for it.  I said yes, so I wrote a song and went into the studio to record it.  I had some extra time in the studio and I had written another song, so I recorded it, too, and they took both of the original songs and they put them in the movie.

That, too, makes me feel like I'm on the right track.and the right direction musically.

I wanted to ask you what your feeling was about current Nashville and country radio.

Well, here's the thing.  Actually, right now, in my opinion, I think country music is starting to show some promise in the fact that I'm listening to Zac Brown and Jamie Johnson and I'm hearing the voices.  For so long, for some reason, country music along with all other music, seemed to become visual, not audio.  People started wanting to see their artists whether they were swinging out on stage, fireworks, busting guitars, dancing and having the real slick good looking guys and great looking girls and let the technology do all the work for their voices.  That's why I think that, when you use all that technology like pitch machines, that's how come  it all sounds the same.  It's being mechanical.

What I'm hearing now, like Miranda Lambert, these people are coming in and these people, instead of going to the pop thing, I think I'm seeing a little more shift back, not quite as much as I'd like, but we don't want to do it too fast.  I really feel like the brakes have been put on and they're starting to go back and get some of those really gritty singers.  I really do feel like I'm seeing a bit of a change.

People are listening to these singers.  It's not a big huge production show or the songs are overproduced.  I'
m hearing people saying I'm listening to so-and-so and so-and-so and I'm looking at a real age group here.  Not just 18 to 30.  I'm hearing even your older folks saying "Boy, yeah, he's really got that good old voice…"  I think we've hit that point where it's starting to turn.

This Mother's Best set has been instrumental, too, in that a lot of people are getting to hear this kind of music and they're saying "God, that's what I want to be listening to."

I don't know if you know this, but I have a radio show on Sirius/XM.  It airs on Sunday and then loops on Wednesdays and Fridays and I host.  It's called Hank in the Box and what we do is, I host the hour and I play some of the shows in their entirety.  I talk about the songs, what was going on in the country during that time.  We're also going to start, in the next batch which I'm working on, taking reviews that came in from different publications and start reading that in there and taking the e-mail comments from people who are listening and hearing it and start putting that into the show.  It's a year show on Sirius/XM.  I'm real pleased that they thought enough, based off an interview that I gave and listening to the material, to say "We want to be a part of this and we want to share this music and legacy of Hank Williams."

I do think that it's great the we have something like Sirius/XM where there are stations dedicated to an older style of country that can't be heard on any other station over-the-air.  People are able to go and hear some of the older sounds and get some influence from it.

Absolutely.  When you get into The Roadhouse [Sirius/XM traditional country station], this is what the George Jones', the Merle Haggard's, the Willie Nelson's, they'll all tell you.  Then you have the next generation that's going to them.  Well, just keep going back to the headwaters.  You will be able to find that and be able to get your own style and be able to sing with that "it factor."  That's what makes somebody good and somebody great.  The "it factor."

Well, thank you for all your time and all your insight. 

Thank you for all your interest and, like I said, we're really excited and really pleased that we did get the Grammy nomination.  I really am hoping that we will get it for the Historical Album but, my Dad did get the Hall of Fame Grammy this year for Lovesick Blues.

Are you going out to Los Angeles for the awards? 

Oh, you betcha.  This hillbilly is going right on out there.  I was talking to Ricky Skaggs and Connie Smith and Marty and all of us, and we said "Hey, they better get ready, baby, 'cause here we come."

Well, good luck.  I really do hope it wins.

Well, I do too but, if not, the thing about it is, just getting the nomination, that right there…when you have the industry say "Hey, you're in the top."  That's great.