As the extensive liner notes included here tell us, when the now, near-mythic country star, Hank Williams died in his car on New Year’s Ever 1952 he had in his possession four notebooks full of unfinished songs…pages and pages of lyrics, but no music written to accompany them. Considering the amount of iconic songs Williams wrote in his short life (I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Move It On Over, Cold Cold Heart, Your Cheatin’ Heart), these notebooks were like gold waiting to be mined.
Fortunately, Williams’ publishing company understood the importance of the notebooks and took good care of them…a history of the notebooks is included in the liner notes. Finally, in 2001, Mary Martin, a music industry veteran (she is the person who recommended Dylan contact Robbie Robertson and The Band back in the mid-60s) decided to do something with these ancient tablets. She contacted Dylan, who was a big Hank Williams fan, about finishing the songs. Dylan decided the project was too big for him alone, but volunteered to release the project on his new Egyptian label. So, Martin and Dylan contacted potential songwriters to help out and this is the final result.
What we have are a dozen “new” songs. The lyrics were written 60 years ago by Williams, the music written recently by the likes of Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams, Jack White and Merle Haggard.
The first track, You’ve Been Lonesome, Too, was co-written and sung by Alan Jackson and, with Jackson’s Nashville drawl, sounds the most like Williams himself. Paul Franklin’s steel guitar and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle give the track a fairly accurate reproduction of Hank’s Drifting Cowboys and the song its self feels like the obvious sequel to I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
Next up is Bob Dylan’s contribution, The Love That Faded. Again pedal steel and fiddle, this time played by Donnie Herron, drive the tune. Dylan’s vocal sound pinched and grizzled, pretty much how he has sounded for the last seven or eight years, which seems to be just fine in this context.
Norah Jones’ track How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart is one of the album’s highlights. The track features Norah’s vocal accompanied only by the harmony vocal of Gillian Welch and the acoustic guitar of Dave Rawlings. The song itself is stunning.
Nashvilleresident Jack White handles himself well on You Know That I Know. His vocal style is a bit distracting but, again, Donnie Herron’s steel guitar saves the day.
Lucinda Williams seems to pop up on just about every tribute album around. Here, she sounds right at home with just her voice and acoustic guitar on mournful I’m So Happy I Found You. In the song, Williams reveals he’s “crying because I’m so happy”.
Fact is, despite all the talent gathered here, the unifying factor is Williams’ voice coming through in his lyrics. No matter who is singing them, you know it’s him in there somewhere. His granddaughter, singer Holly Williams, gets a chance to collaborate with her long-dead granddad on Blue Is My Heart, another highlight that features Hank Williams, Jr. on harmony vocals. Another father and daughter team precedes them with Levon Helm and his daughter Amy, joining voices on You’ll Never Again Be Mine. The family affair continues as Dylan’s son Jakob holds his own with On, Mama, Come Home.
The album closes out with the craggy Merle Haggard, sounding very much like late-period Johnny Cash on The Sermon On The Mount.
If you’re a bit shy about country music and the sound of a fiddle and pedal steel guitar send you running in the other direction…stay clear of this collection. But fans of classic country and Hank Williams in particular should definitely check this out. Hank would be proud.
Click here to listen to How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart? by Norah Jones: