A Cure for the Long-Gone Lonesome Blues

According to Hank Williams, Mother's Best Flour makes "the best biscuit you ever hung a tooth in," and "On Top of Old Smokey" sounds best when sung the Appalachian way, "like Grandma taught it." Now unless you happened to tune into Nashville's WSM radio during one of Williams's daily shows in 1951, you likely missed these pearls of wisdom from country music's first superstar. You can hear them now thanks to an alert WSM employee who saved the show's recordings from the trash heap during a housecleaning at the station back in 1979, then held onto the acetate discs for the next 20 years. But when some of the radio shows began leaking out as bootleg singles, the Williams estate took notice and, eventually, control. Together with Time Life recordings, they carefully edited the two-dozen-plus discs, which contained two to three shows apiece, which equaled 143 "new" Hank songs. The result: "Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings," a three-CD box set of 54 songs due out this week online, in stores and at truck stops from Bangor, Maine, to Barstow, Calif.

Fifty-five years after his death, Hank Williams is back in never-released versions of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin'," as well as songs that were never recorded commercially by Williams, such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Cherokee Boogie." The recordings are so clear and intimate, you can hear Williams, then 27, chide his band members (known as the Drifting Cowboys) for hitting bum notes and joke about how he's "wrote so many songs with the same tune," he forgot "which a one" he's singing. "The thing that's so unbelievable about these recordings is that you get to hear my dad talk, laugh, tell jokes," says singer-songwriter Jett Williams, who runs her father's estate with her half brother, Hank Jr. "You actually get to meet the man, Hank Williams. Unlike Elvis, there's very little footage or recordings of just him being him. But during these shows he tells you why he wrote a song, what his favorite song was, and you can even tell Dad had a bad back because you hear him groan when he gets up out of his chair." As enlightening as the album may be for Williams's fans, it was a life-changing revelation for his daughter. Jett Williams never met her father. For the first two decades of her life, she didn't even know he was her father.

Jett was born five days after Hank Williams, at only 29, died on New Year's Day 1953. Her mother, Bobbie Jett, was not married to Williams but gave Hank's mother, Lillian Stone, custody of the infant before moving from Montgomery, Ala., to California. Stone legally adopted the baby girl, only to die months after the child's second birthday. She left the toddler in the custody of her daughter, Irene Williams, but Hank's sister made "Baby Jett" (as she's referred to in ensuing legal documents) a ward of the state of Alabama, making it nearly impossible for her to unearth her lineage—or inherit any of the family money. Jett went from foster home to foster home until she was adopted by a childless couple, the Deuprees, in 1959. They named their daughter Cathy, and when she turned 14, the Deuprees learned of her possible connection to Grand Ole Opry royalty. The mention of a baby girl with a history similar to their daughter's surfaced in a 1967 family lawsuit—there were a lot of those—over Williams's publishing that involved Williams's first wife, Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams Jr.), sister Irene and Acuff-Rose Music. Still, the couple kept the suspicion that the lawsuit had raised from their adopted daughter, who says no one ever talked about her past. "When you ask your parents once or twice [about where you came from] and they say they don't know, you believe them and you stop asking," she says before joking: "And I'd seen the movie 'Your Cheatin' Heart.' It said, 'This is the true story of Hank Williams,' and I didn't hear anybody mention me."

On her 21st birthday, Cathy Deupree hit the jackpot—actually, it was only a small trust fund (about $2,000) set up for "Baby Jett" by a mysterious estate in the name of Hank's mother, Lillian. But it forced Cathy's adoptive mother to reveal her secret. She suggested that Cathy cash the check but told her to "forget trying to legally prove you're Hank's daughter because it would be impossible."

Her father, who was terminally ill, finally pointed Jett to some adoption documents in 1980 that might help her claim her birthright. After a lot of legwork with scant results, she met with investigative attorney Keith Adkinson in 1984. "He located this prebirth custody contract, which my [biological] dad had his lawyers draw up three months before I was born," says Williams, who also searched for her mother, but found that Bobbie Jett had died in 1974. "My mother and father signed it. It basically said the father, Hank Williams, will take custody and be solely responsible for the baby. When I read that document, not only did I know this man Hank Williams was my father, I knew my father wanted me." Adkinson arranged a press conference in July of 1985, where he announced that he'd uncovered proof that Jett was indeed Hank Williams's lost daughter. Hank Jr.'s attorneys immediately sued her on the ground that her claim was causing contractual problems with business partners of the estate.

Eight years of litigation—which included a paternity trial in Alabama and copyright trial in New York—unearthed a damning paper trail, especially old letters between attorneys of the Williams estate. "One of those exchanges read something like this," says Jett. " 'Are you sure we shouldn't pay her?' 'No, let sleeping dogs lie. Keep it buried, she'll never find out'." Finally, after winning her paternity and copyright claims, Alabama's Supreme Court decided that the woman once known only as Baby Jett had been defrauded, and in July of 1989 she became an heir to half of Hank Williams's estate. Jett published a book the following year about her journey titled "Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby."

Today, Jett Williams is married to her attorney/manager, Adkinson, and lives just outside Nashville, where she writes music, cuts the occasional record (she's made three already) and keeps a watch over her father's legacy. She says she has a "cordial, but not close" relationship with her famous brother Hank Jr. (He declined to speak with NEWSWEEK.) But the two did recently work together—well, at least through their attorneys—when successfully fighting their father's former record label for control of the "Mother's Best" recordings.

Still, many details of Hank Williams's life remain a mystery to the daughter he never met, though the old radio shows—and some "hand-me-down" stories—do offer some clues. "I was fortunate that his fans and friends put their arms around me. They told me what his favorite food or color was, which was great," says Jett, who combined the names of her mother and father in 1985 for her stage moniker, and eventually toured with original members of the Drifting Cowboys, "but now, to actually hear him laugh. For anybody who's lost a parent, whether they knew him or not, to hear them talk again—it makes your knees buckle."

Jett says she hopes to release the rest of the "Mother's Best" material over the next three years on separate CDs and, in doing so, show her father in a new light. Hank Williams is, after all, almost as renowned for his drinking and drug abuse as he is for his music. The Opry eventually fired him for being too drunk to perform, and people still suspect that his heart-related death was really a drug overdose. But the material on his radio show, or at least the bits picked for the box set, reveal him as surprisingly lucid. When bantering with his band or talking to his listeners, Williams is as upbeat and witty as he is in songs such as "Move It On Over" and "Hey Good Lookin'." "People always ask me, 'What do you hope you got from your dad?' " says Jett. "First and foremost, I say I hope I got part of his heart. Based on what he did for me, and the stories I've heard, and the songs he wrote and, now, what I hear on these recordings, he had a big old heart. If I only have a small piece of that, then I'm good."