Great as history, impenetrable as music
Posthumous albums are always a dicey proposition, an easy cash grab from rapacious record companies taking unfinished scraps and repacking them to rob die-hard fans blind. Fortunately, I’m Gonna Sing has a more interesting backstory and reason to exist. These hymns were performed by Hank Williams on a radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour in 1951, 2 years before his premature demise from a heart attack. These recordings were nearly destroyed in the 1970s, so the fact that this even came out is a miracle in and of itself. While it’s easy to appreciate, it’s a lot harder to actually sit through this almost 3-hour long endurance test that bleeds into a realm where time has no meaning and songs cannot be untangled from one another.
Since these are from the 1950s, the vocals are right in the front of the mix and have their most nasal qualities cranked up. It’s certainly a time-capsule, right down to the radio announcer who pops in occasionally to praise Hank. The fiddle is the most welcome musical element, and there are some interesting vocal arrangements with Hank’s backing band, both of which contribute to making “When The Fire Comes Down From Heaven” the most enjoyable listen.
At over 2 hours and containing forty songs, it becomes nigh-impossible to tell songs apart from one another. At multiple points in the final fourth, déjà vu sets in and it felt as if there were multiple versions of a hymn, but nope, these are forty different tracks. On one hand, compilations like these are not meant to be listened to in one chunk. On the other hand, there’s not a handful of stellar tracks that rise above the rest of the tracklist. The charms of hymns lie in their simplicity, as they are often broadly sketched and vague when it comes to the details, and details are what would be needed to make songs stand out. When Williams is belting his lungs out on “Jesus Died For Me,” for example, it’s hard to get over the scratchiness of the mic.
The only songs that do stand out do so for all the wrong reasons, like the harmonies on “I Heard My Mother Praying for Me” that are the most nasally and irritating on the record. There’s nothing wrong with religiously themed lyrics, and a lot of gospel hymns are charming for their infectious positive spirit, but “Dust on the Bible” throws that in the trash in favor of condescending finger-wagging at those who have abandoned religion for the sinful, godless modern world. Perhaps evolving cultural context has changed it from its original, more benign intentions, but it’s hard to listen to it and not imagine the Westboro Baptist Church using these exact lines in their screeds.
It’s awesome that I’m Gonna Sing exists, but it can only be appreciated as a piece of history rather than as entertainment, and there’s no reason why it could not have been both.