The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
Sometime in the early morning of the first day of 1953, while traveling between Virginia and West Virginia, Hank Williams died at the age of 29. Among his possessions was a beat-up, embroidered brown leather briefcase containing four notebooks that included ideas for roughly 66 songs. Some of the songs were almost fully formed and some were just fragments.
With the involvement of Hank Williams’s granddaughter Holly Williams, and in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Museum’s CMF Records, Bob Dylan’s Egyptian Record label, distributed through Columbia, has produced an album that is a companion of sorts to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy, an exhibition presenting the Williams musical family.
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is the first release on Egyptian since the highly lauded 1997 release The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers – A Tribute Album, which is regrettably out of print on CD. Williams is obviously a figure more well-known and well-preserved in country and popular music circles than Rodgers. It is the fact that these songs have not been recorded before, however, that makes this project of particularly keen interest to country music fans.
The Rodgers release, which was very strong, presented his music in a way that was accessible to a rock audience. This Williams set, by contrast primarily seeks to present the songs in a country setting. The result is an important and worthwhile release that is unfortunately uneven.
Since Williams wrote songs that are ingrained in the history of 20th-century popular and country music, such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Saw the Light,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold, Cold Heart,””Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Move It On Over”and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” it’s difficult to really assess the quality of these songs after only a few listens. Over time they may attain the same status as some Williams his best-loved and most-covered songs.
The songs that stand out here are the ones that have the most authentic feel. Bob Dylan’s lone contribution to this set, “The Love That Faded,” works wonderfully and could easily fit in with the songs he’s recently written and recorded. The release is a vehicle for Dylan’s continuing forays into country, a musical genre he clearly admires but which he has often been criticized for exploring. His son Jakob Dylan also does a fine job with the stripped down “Oh Mama, Please Come Home.” The Band’s Levon Helm’s contribution here, “You’ll Never gain Be Mine,” perfectly captures an authentic mid-century country feel. Norah Jones, following her work with the Little Willies continues to delve into her country side and brings a beautiful, aching emotion to “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart.” Two other women from this release really hit the mark: Lucinda Williams, with note-perfect vocals on “I’m So Happy I Found You,” and Sheryl Crow, illustrating on “Angel Mine” how an old Hank Williams song can sound like something new and contemporary. It is worth pointing out that Dylan, Williams and Crow all appeared on Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute issued on Lost Highway in 2001.
Some of the other interpretations, particularly those from Alan Jackson and Patty Loveless, sound a bit too generic and reflect the kind of homogeneous Nashville country recording style that Hank Williams would have likely found not to his liking. On the other extreme, Jack White’s track sounds like he’s reaching just a little too far and comes across as a little forced. These are minor quibbles, given the overall significance of this release, which also includes other fine interpretations from the likes of Merle Haggard as well as the album’s only duet, featuring Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell.
Some of those songs found in that old briefcase have been turned in to songs before by the likes of Williams’s son Hank Williams Jr. and Mickey Newbury, but didn’t cause the same stir that this set has brought about. Country music historians will no doubt spend a great deal of time and ink evaluating, assessing and debating the merits and historical significance of these songs. Others may also attempt to cover them in ways that give differing insights into their meaning and lasting quality.