In a life that was too short and too tortured, in a recording career of equal brevity (1946-1952), Hank Williams merely transformed the quotidian experiences and feelings of everyday folk into poetry. His inventive and direct use of language remade the country song into a vehicle for limning the darker goings-on beneath the cheery facade of postwar American society, and propelled the music out of the rural South into mainstream America, with the considerable help of pop artists such as Tony Bennett
and Rosemary Clooney
, whose cover versions of Williams's songs were massive pop hits in the early '50s. Williams's hits are available in a number of configurations, some of which were doctored after his death. 40 GREATEST HITS stands as a concise, two-disc overview of the basic texts, ranging from autobiographical tearjerkers ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Your Cheatin' Heart") to uptempo barn burners ("Jambalaya," "Hey Good Lookin' ") that prefigured the rise of rockabilly a year after his death, to the deeply-felt gospel confessions torn from bitter experience ("I Saw the Light"), as well as the eerie "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," the single that was climbing the charts when heart failure claimed Williams on January 1, 1953. For the definitive Hank Williams collection, look to the ten-CD box set, COMPLETE RECORDINGS; among lower-priced titles that best represent the breadth and depth of a great artist's legacy, 40 GREATEST HITS is a guaranteed winner.