Beloved among country aficionados -- Merle Haggard took his love so far he married her in the '70s, but Loretta Lynn was instrumental in her discovery -- Leona Williams never quite got the credit she deserved. Certainly, she didn't tear up the country charts during the '70s, when she was an active commercial concern. She hovered at the very lower reaches of the charts, popping up into the Top 10 for the 1978 Hag duet "The Bull and the Beaver," and almost cracking the Top 40 in 1983 for "We're Strangers Again." That latter single doesn't show up on Bear Family's long, long-overdue 2013 compilation Yes, Ma'm, He Found Me in a Honky Tonk
, a triple-disc set that is her first-ever CD release. All of her recordings between 1968 and 1980 are here, along with a previously unreleased 1986 album produced by Tompall Glaser
that is quite clearly a throwback to the classic hardcore country that was Williams' specialty. Raised on Kitty Wells
and following in Lynn's footsteps (not to mention the path of Tammy Wynette
), Williams was a traditionalist ready to change with the times. There's a clean punch to her recordings that tie them to the time as much as her modern-minded songs (she's proud to have been found in a honky tonk and she sings of a "Country Girl with Hot Pants On") but her music never goes pop; she stays true to the post-war hard country she grew up loving. Williams was a hell of a singer -- powerful yet slyly avoiding histrionics, emotional but never sappy -- and her songs were strong, too, so her lack of chart success now seems like a matter of bad breaks, as the three discs on this superb Bear Family set illustrate she's as good as they come.