Tht Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
Hank Williams’ influence on popular music is wide-ranging. From folk, to blues, to country, and even rock and roll, his mournful ballads and honky-tonk swagger has inspired songwriters and singers alike. Like any other great writer, Williams wrote incessantly, scribbling ideas and half formed lyrics into notebooks and on hotel stationary, dutifully placing them into an embroidered leather briefcase for safe keeping. Some notes were concepts consisting of a line or two, while others were nearly fully formed songs. At the time of William’s death on January 1st, 1953, 4 notebooks laden with potentially classic songs lay dormant, their full potential never to be realized. That is, until now.
Hank Williams’ lost notebooks have been opened and a dozen or so songwriters have been invited to create music for the words that Williams orphaned a half century ago. The artist chosen for this holy task were selected because of their songwriting and arranging abilities but also for their musical affinity with Williams. The first to accept the challenge was a man renowned for his own words, Bob Dylan. He turns “The Love That Faded” into a 2-step waltz. The arrangements are faithful to William’s sound with fiddles, pedal guitar and snare drums. All performers show this courtesy, shaping the music into Hank’s form.
Norah Jones might not seem an obvious choice to resurrect Mr. Williams but consider that she is a Texas girl who covered Williams' “Cold, Cold Heart” on her debut release. “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart” for my money is the prettiest song on the album. Jack White has shown his love of country music, producing Loretta Lynn’s Grammy winning album Van Lear Rose. He also created music for the soundtrack of Cold Mountain. Here he does his best to mimic Williams’ reedy vocals on “You Know That I Know.” Levon Helm need not copy anyone’s style; his voice reflects the southern background that he holds in common with Williams. Jakob Dylan’s contribution, “Oh, Mama, Come Home,” doesn’t attempt to sound country. He’s chosen to write in his own folk-roots style. Sheryl Crow’s “Angel Mine” is tinged with New Orleans’ jazz horns and a slow sauntering rhythm. Lucinda Williams has been writing happy love songs of late so it isn’t a surprise that she settled on “I’m So Happy I Found You,” a slow sweet ballad featuring only the singer and a single acoustic guitar.
Not to be overlooked are the true country artists who lovingly contribute to this record. Alan Jackson “You’ve Been Lonesome To” sounds like it was transported from a dusty 1950’s honky-tonk bar jukebox. He’s captured Hank’s ability to sing with a catch in his throat. Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell team up for “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears,” the most bitter track on the disc. Crowell speaks the heartbroken protagonists lament, quoting the Bible while he also recounts his lover’s sins. Patty Loveless kicks up her feet on “You’re Through With Me” and Merle Haggard wraps the disc with the religious ballad “The Sermon On the Mount. But the most touching moment on the album is “Blue Is My Heart, sung by Hank’s granddaughter, Holly Williams. Hank Sr.’s baby boy, Hank Jr., joins his baby for the backing vocals. It underscores Hank’s legacy and the great continuum of music. Somewhere Hank is beaming.