Hank Williams: Inside His Lost Notebooks

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According to Holly, it’s a wonder these notebooks survive at all. “When he died, nobody thought that he was going to be a legend,” she says. “One of his old guitar players told me that they were taking his guitars and his clothes to pawn shops. Not out of spite or anything. They just had to get rid of it.” Hank did become a country legend, and his importance to the genre makes the loss of his personal items an unfortunate void in his legacy. But his songs remain – a small catalog that has established him as an artist who developed a straightforward language of heartbreak and happiness – and the notebooks add untold depth and possibility to that legacy.

“People just didn’t write songs that were so directly emotional in those days,” says McCall. “They still don’t. Part of Hank’s thing was that he was opening up about relationships between men and women in ways that nobody else did, and I think that’s something that made him stand out so much. His songs are just so straightforward about these really deep feelings that are universal, but they’re so hard to write about without sounding sappy or over the top. You think of men in that era – they didn’t express themselves that way.”

Perhaps even more than Timeless, The Lost Notebooks lays bare all of Hank’s contradictions, which have been explored in numerous biographies and reminiscences but carry much more revelatory force when allowed to emerge naturally through his music. “It definitely shows how prolific he was,” says McCall, “and it also dispels any myth that Fred Rose had a bigger hand in Hank’s music than Hank did.” Rose shepherded Hank when the star moved to Nashville in 1949, not only producing many of his biggest hits but also helping him edit and arrange his compositions for maximum emotional impact. “Fred certainly did help him shape his songs sometimes and he gave his advice like a producer does. But it was really Hank. The language he chose, it’s just so familiar to him.”

By chronicling his tumultuous relationship with his first wife Audrey, Williams examined every aspect of romance, its excitements and comforts as well as its aches and scars. “I think it’s safe to say that he was dealing with the fact that the love affair of his life was a deeply troubled one,” says McCall, and The Lost Notebooks reveals emotional extremes of that relationship. “You told some of my friends that you turned me down, but I wouldn’t take you if you were the last gal in town,” sings Jack White on the almost comically vicious “You Know That I Know.” Yet the romantic bitterness of that song is offset by the sincerity of Sheryl Crow’s delicate “Angel Mine,” which contains some of Hank’s sweetest sentiments:

Now my heart is always singing
Songs of love so divine
It will never again know sorrow
Since I found you, angel mine

Similarly, for a man notorious for his drinking and carousing – for showing up to performances too hammered to stand up, for carrying on affairs in secret – Hank held himself to a high moral standard, a contradiction that Merle Haggard explores in the album closer “The Sermon On The Mount.” It’s a simple homily, a short Bible lesson about forthrightness and faith, and it serves as a generous eulogy for a man whose demons continually drug him down. “Take the straight and narrow, and do good things that count,” Haggard sings with the authority of one who has strayed. “Make up your mind to live by the sermon on the mount.”


Holly Williams saw the notebooks for the first time only recently – long after she had finished and recorded “Blue Is My Heart.” The items were on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the Family Traditions exhibition, which McCall curated to showcase three generations of the Williams family. Looking through the notebooks was an incredible experience for her. “I saw signatures of my dad’s from 1967 and ’68, where he had written on there that he had looked at them. And now to think that so many years later these songs are finally being seen and recorded, it’s just unbelievable.”

Like all of Hank’s music, these songs belong not to his family, but to every listener who’s had his or her heart broken, who’s experienced the precipitous ups and downs of love. “There’s a whole new generation out there that knows very little, if any, of Hank’s songs,” says Holly. “Hopefully, through these artists, whether it’s Jack White or Norah Jones or Lucinda Williams, they’ll learn more about his music and see that his songs really do stand the test of time.”



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