Hank Williams Tapes Surface

Country star's estate gains control of tape gold mine

September 11, 2003 12:00 AM ET

More than 150 Hank Williams recordings from 1951 may soon be available, as the country music legend's estate recently won a court ruling that granted it ownership.

Only good fortune made the tapes available in the first place. Williams, who would have turned eighty next Wednesday, made a series of live-in-the-studio recordings for Mother's Best Flour Show -- a WSM-AM radio program -- that were to be played at a later date as though they were broadcast live-from-the-studio. The radio station had no rights to the recording beyond a one-time airing, and it complied with orders to throw the tapes away after airing. A Williams associate rescued the recordings from the WSM dumpster, and they eventually fell into the hands of Hillous Butrum, Williams' bassist in the Driftin' Cowboys.

Butrum had some of the recordings tweaked with new instrumentation and copyrighted the updated recordings, which he ended up selling to Legacy Entertainment LLC for a sum sources close to the issue have reported as in the vicinity of a quarter million dollars. The original master tapes made their way into the hands of Williams' daughter, Jett, and they currently reside locked away in the safe of her husband, attorney Keith Atkinson. "I don't know if ever in the annals of popular music you've just had 150 sides by a genuine superstar land in someone's lap this way," Atkinson says.

However, when Atkinson found out that Fantasy was planning to shoot an advertisement to sell the overdubbed recordings on television, he filed an injunction. "You can't just take a recording, alter it and claim it," Atkinson says. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that dog won't hunt." Indeed, said dog failed to hunt, as last Friday a Nashville court ruled the recordings were the exclusive property of Williams' heirs, Jett and Hank Williams Jr.

Despite the court victory, Hank Williams Jr.'s manager Merle Kilgore (who was present for some of the recordings) was only cautiously optimistic, as Fantasy has thirty days to appeal the decision. "I don't see them throwing their hands up," he says. "They've put a lot of money into this, and, in my experience, these things can go on forever." Atkinson suggested that the court ruling was a promising first step, but wouldn't speculate about a possible release until Legacy makes its decision regarding an appeal.

If all sides can agree upon one thing, it's that the tapes represent a gold mine for Hank Williams enthusiasts. Approximately 150 songs are included, forty of which have never before been recorded and commercially released by the country legend, including his take on the Fred Rose-penned classic "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" and the sing-songy favorite, "On Top of Old Smokey." And Williams' numerous hits will be presented loose and live, padded with his between-song banter and jokes.

"There have been releases of Hank with strings," Kilgore says, "and nobody bought 'em. People wanted raw Hank Williams, just like it was. And these are of great quality."

"I hope these tapes will not only revisit Hank Williams fifty years afterwards," Atkinson says, "but will also introduce a whole new generation to his music."

Legacy had no comment at press time.

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