The Complete Hank Williams is an amazing document, with 53 previously unreleased tracks. It is not complete, however, because it doesn’t include anything from a 1951 Hank Williams radio series sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. There are 180 or so Mother’s Best songs, and former Williams bassist Hillous Butrum has a disputed legal claim to 158 of them. “That big a batch of unreleased masters for a major artist is unprecedented,” says Kira Florita, coproducer of the box set, who estimates that the 47 unique Mother’s Best recordings would extend Hank’s existing catalogue by 25 percent.
Butrum, who was in Hank’s Drifting Cowboys for a year, didn’t play on the Mother’s Best shows, but bought the tapes in 1982. When Butrum sold 42 of the songs to Legacy Entertainment, and Legacy prepared a Mother’s Best album for release last fall, Hank Jr. and his half-sister Jett joined Mercury in blocking its release with a lawsuit, arguing that only Mercury could issue Hank recordings. A judge then blocked either side from releasing the Mother’s Best tracks, which kept them off the box set.
The lawsuit came in the nick of time. On the 42 tracks Butrum sold, he rerecorded the backing music with a new band, and added piano and drums. Only the original vocals remained. Legacy planned to sell the “updated” material via an 800 number. By the time Hank Jr. stalled the project, Legacy had already shot an infomercial in which Butrum appears in the hallowed Ryman balcony, saying, “I’ve often heard it said, ‘What would Hank sound like with new technology, in stereo?’ ” Unfortunately, we may yet find out—Butrum says the issues blocking the album’s release could be cleared up before New Year’s.