When Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day 1953, the music world held its breath, waiting to see who would take over as the new king of the hillbillies. There were plenty of contenders, but no country star had greater commercial success during the 1950s than Webb Pierce, a Louisiana native whose career took off just as Williams’ was sliding downhill. He was arguably the best country singer of the century, a master of romantic “heart songs” who was known for his unmistakable, whining tenor as well as the intensity of emotion he infused into every lyric. Pierce revolutionized the plunky sound of postwar honky-tonk by popularizing sleek pedal-steel guitar riffs in hits like 1953’s “There Stands the Glass,” and he later met rock ‘n’ roll halfway with rollicking, up-tempo material by hot new songwriters such as Mel Tillis and Wayne P. Walker. Despite racking up more number one hits in the 1950s than any other country artist, Pierce somehow wound up on the outside of the Nashville establishment, and it wasn’t until late last year that he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Other musicians have always enjoyed his material though, as evidenced by this fabulous new tribute album. The level of talent assembled for this project is staggering, ranging from grizzled old-timers such as George Jones and Charley Pride to contemporary Top 40 stars Trent Summar, Dwight Yoakam, and Pam Tillis. The twangcore crowd and ’70s mavericks also get in their licks: Emmylou Harris delivers a plaintive reading of “Wondering,” while Rosie Flores and Robbie Fulks cheerfully plow their way through a pair of rock-era hits. It’s difficult for anyone to match the charm and immediacy of Pierce’s original recordings, but high marks go to Dale Watson’s explosive version of “In the Jailhouse Now” and to Guy Clark, who hits the goofy mood of “Honk Tonk Song” right on the head. Willie Nelson is also in on the fun, which is appropriate since his 1982 duets LP was the last album Pierce recorded. Here, Nelson takes his time with a bittersweet, appropriately mournful version of “That’s Me Without You,” one of Pierce’s weepiest and best ballads. With an all-star cast like this, and such great music to work from, this disc should open a few new ears to the Webb Pierce legend.