Leon Russell

Best of Hank Wilson

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Way back in 1973, Leon Russell, one of the great jack-of-all-trades the music business has ever seen, was riding a wave of popularity as a solo artist. Having begun a solo career in 1968 -- after working with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie Hawkins to Phil Spector and Gary Lewis & the Playboys -- as half of the Asylum Choir with Marc Benno, Russell began cutting albums regularly in 1970. During the heyday of his popularity, Russell took on the alter-ego of Hank Wilson and intermittently cut pure country and bluegrass albums under that name as a nod to his own Okie roots. There were four of them, beginning with Hank Wilson's Back in 1973, followed by Hank Wilson, Vol. 2 in 1984, Legend in My Time in 1998, and Rhythm & Bluegrass in 2001. This 22-cut compilation assembles tracks from all of these recordings and is truly a generous sampling of the best of them. Russell was very smart in the sequencing, choosing not to order these tracks chronologically, but rather to go by feel in order to capture the full range of expression in them. What is easily revealed here is that the Hank Wilson alter-ego with its not-so-subtle references to Hank Williams was no gimmick. Each of these recordings is solid in its own right and Russell is a tremendous interpreter -- and sometimes radical rearranger -- of the original material. There's a rather straight bluegrass take on "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," and the shimmering West Coast country rock interpretation of "Sweet Dreams." In addition there are numerous tunes here by his primary inspiration that are somewhat radically reinterpreted: a Western Swing reading of "Oh Lonesome Me," the bluegrass-cum-honky tonk instrumentation on "Jambalaya," and a countrypolitain read of the weeper "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," among them. Other tunes, such as the stomping bluegrass wail of "Mystery Train," the duet with Willie Nelson on the seminal "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today," or the rollicking jumping jazz version of "Sixteen Tons," bear Russell's firm grip on American popular music and folk traditions. For real Americana fans, this compilation is a delight and a peek into the doorway of the Hank Wilson legend. For those in the know, it's a killer mixtape with three unreleased bonus cuts including reads of "San Antonio Rose," "You Win Again," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." This baby is all killer, no filler.

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