Hank Williams’ voice is a unique and a gigantic one in American culture, which means that it is also one familiar to those who listen to popular music all across the world. Hank Williams is recognizable singing, say, “I Saw The Light,” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” even by people who couldn’t remotely be described as fans, in the same way as Bing Crosby is instantly recognizable singing “White Christmas,” or John Wayne is instantly recognizable in a cowboy hat saying, “The hell I will!” Hank Williams is just there as a reference point like the pyramids of Egypt or the Grand Canyon.
In speaking of Hank Williams’ voice, however, I very much mean it both in the sense of the instantly-recognizable product of his vocal cords and in the sense of what that voice has to say: how Hank Williams in singing a song describes the world, captures an emotion, issues a plea.
Although he died at the age of 29, Hank Williams is a patriarch of country music (if it’s legal to use the term patriarch anymore) but he is also much more than that: he is both patriarch and patron saint to songwriters everywhere, and to discerning aficionados of the art of song across all genres. No one lays it out there quite like Hank Williams did over and over again in his short songwriting career, with such a devastating combination of depth, honesty and economy. Even his more light and humorous songs are models of how to write a tune that’s instantly accessible, unpretentious and utterly timeless.
This album, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, is drawn from lyrics found in Hank Williams’ notebooks after his death, and offered fifty years later to this selection of songwriters and performers to put to music and finish. (Initially, all of the lyrics were offered to Bob Dylan, but after long consideration he decided that “the task is too mighty” and finished just one song himself, that one being “The Love That Faded.”) After living with the album for a little while, my own feeling is that this collection is nothing less than a gift.
These new recordings also offer a chance to ponder the question of where exactly Hank Williams’ voice resides, after all. Is it in the words that he wrote, or does it require his own actual voice and his own melodies in order to be heard? The answer isn’t simple, and maybe it’s not graspable at all by us humans, but reflecting upon it does shed a kind of light.
What would you or I think if we came across these words scribbled in a random notebook?
Blue is my heart, blue as the sky
Memories of you, they’re making me cry
Longing for you in days all gone by
Blue is my heart, blue as the sky
Honestly, for myself, I would think that they were pretty darned banal, and I’d likely think nothing more of it. Saying that your heart is as blue as the sky, that memories are making you cry … what could be more bland, more ordinary and unremarkable? On the page, it’s difficult to spot any particular voice there, let alone that of a towering songwriter.
Holly Williams with harmony by her father Hank Jr.
Yet, the transformation that takes place when these words are put to a simple, plaintive melody and sung with a heartfelt ache is utterly astounding. (Listen via YouTube at right.) That “Blue is my heart, blue as the sky” line goes from seeming offhand to being truly heartwrenching; it’s a line that to my ears now plumbs the soul. The blueness of the singer’s poor broken heart is now juxtaposed so poignantly with that beautiful blue sky, making the sadness there so much more unbearably sad. And then, again, the blueness of that poor broken heart is just like the blueness of the sky: broad, deep, infinite—never to be filled.
Tracklist: The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
1. You’ve Been Lonesome, Too – Alan Jackson
2. The Love That Faded – Bob Dylan
3. How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart? – Norah Jones
4. You Know That I Know – Jack White
5. I’m So Happy I Found You – Lucinda Williams
6. I Hope You Shed a Million Tears – Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell
7. You’re Through Fooling Me – Patty Loveless
8. You’ll Never Again Be Mine – Levon Helm
9. Blue Is My Heart – Holly Williams
10. Oh, Mama, Come Home – Jakob Dylan
11. Angel Mine – Sheryl Crow
12. The Sermon on the Mount – Merle Haggard
Hank Williams’ little lines might have seemed like nothing on paper, but in the hands of another songwriter and singer (in this case his granddaughter Holly Williams) tuning into the same channel Hank heard, and handling his words with love, they become yet another great song, and one that can stand beside the ones he himself sang. His voice is indeed there and is quite unmistakable. It took a kind of alchemy and magic to bring it out of those words, alive and tangible, but it had been preserved within them somehow.
I’m not going to go down the tracks on this album one by one and rank or rate them. As said, I do think that the album as a whole constitutes a gift: great new songs from the well spring that was Hank Williams, now 58 years after his death. There’s nothing resembling a clunker. I think that each performer does a loving and beautiful job with the lyrics they were given. Some lean more towards a melody that sounds like Hank, while others make music that sounds more like what they’d do themselves, but both approaches bear fruit, and Hank’s voice never disappears; it’s persistent and true.
An album like this is not by its nature a cohesive whole, although these 12 tracks over 37 minutes do make for good listening at a sitting. However, it’s a collection of individual songs that will live on in the repertoires of these performers, and likely spawn some great cover versions in a similar way in which Hank’s originals did and continue to do. Kudos to producer Mary Martin, to Bob Dylan, and to all involved.
That said: When I write about music releases, I tend to consider their audio quality in relation to the lamentable loudness war (although I’m wouldn’t want to present myself as the final arbiter of these things). In this case, my own perception is that the CD does suffer from some excessive compression of dynamic range—which is a crying shame as always—but it is not on the extreme level of many other releases of modern times. (I have not myself heard the vinyl version.)
But I do factor this into the rating of the CD itself. (Music industry take note.)