Release Date: Oct 4, 2011
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Country, Easy Listening
Using Hank Williams' lyrics notebooks to imagine songs he never finished, The Lost Notebooks turns a vaguely necrophiliac idea into a startling reincarnation. Bob Dylan's mariachi waltz, "The Love That Faded," is a sweet-croaked séance; Lucinda Williams and Jack White, in different ways, show how much room Hank's writing gives singers to emote. The ghostliest moment is Alan Jackson’s "You've Been Lonesome, Too." Stoic and emotionally devastated, Jackson reconnects Williams with the country tradition he fathered.
“The silence of a falling starLights up the purple skyI wonder where you are tonightI’m so lonesome I could cry.” We’ve all listened, played and maybe even sung those lines by Hank Williams so many times that they’ve worn out. It’s a fate that hits a lot of great music. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix.
As one of the few American singer/songwriters whose legacy rivals Hank Williams, it’s no surprise that Bob Dylan was entrusted with a collection of lyrics Hank left behind, the idea being that Dylan could set them to music. Dylan decided it was a project too big for one man so he recruited a number of like-minded artists to turn these words into songs, choosing artists with some measure of debt to Williams no matter their purported stylistic designation. That said, it is the country singers -- Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Merle Haggard -- who, along with Dylan, create songs that stay true to Williams’ melodies and aesthetic, Haggard tackling a religious text, Gill and Crowell reviving Hank’s midsong recitation, and Jackson effortlessly evoking classic postwar honky tonk.
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is exactly what its name suggests—songs taken from the songwriter’s notebooks, left behind in a briefcase and vaulted for the next 50-some-odd years. The release of this album continues the Williams’ legend by marking the first time these lyrics have been put in public, but meanwhile the roster of artists on the track listing is not only impressive, it’s mesmerizing. Let’s put it this way: if you walked into a restaurant and saw these 13 musicians sitting around a table drinking whiskey and chewing hunks of steak, well, we’d never be allowed in that restaurant anyway, so let’s just stop dreaming.
Bob Dylan and Williams’ own son spearhead The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, setting to ?music lyrics that the country forefather left behind after his death at age 29. Fans like Jack White, Levon Helm, and Vince Gill provide original melodies, some too wan for the strength of the lyrics, which range from the deeply romantic to the ? corrosively aggressive. But Dylan’s ”The Love That Faded” is gorgeous.
Extending the Mermaid Avenue treatment to Hank Williams, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams takes unused lyrics by the late, great country crooner and sets them to tunes by an all-star cast of current country and rock singers. Unlike Wilco and Billy Bragg, who adapted Woody Guthrie’s words to fit a contemporary Americana context, the artists here sing the lyrics to traditional, Williams-esque melodies. In effect the album feels less like a past-present collaboration and more like a covers record.
Using lyrics salvaged from Williams's notebooks, a dozen voices offer homage to the long lost king of country. Bob Dylan, who found penning all dozen numbers too daunting, provides the template with "The Love That Faded", a forlorn waltz spangled with pedal steel guitar. Granddaughter Holly Williams and a Vince Gill/Rodney Crowell duet likewise hit the right melancholy note.
Less an album than some kind of twisted exercise in ethics, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams arrives amid considerable controversy and a host of serious questions about artistic license and record-label machinations. Blogger “The Triggerman,” of the generally excellent Saving Country Music, has articulated perhaps the most important questions raised by this project in a lengthy editorial; in short, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams invites a roster of well-known country and rock artists to complete the lyrics and write the melodies for a set of partially finished Hank Williams songs, and the folks in charge of marketing the project have repeatedly changed their stories regarding who owns the material and what the greater intention of the album is. It’s territory both muddy and unstable: Who would be so presumptuous to take a half-completed Van Gogh and try to fill the rest of the canvas? From a songwriting perspective, that isn’t a far-fetched analogy, as Williams’s songs established so much of what’s considered archetype for country music and singer-songwriters in general.
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.
A deserved and haunting evocation of what might have been. Andrew Mueller 2011 Hank Williams was just 29 when he died on New Year’s Day 1953, having already composed the songbook which stands, surely forever, as the benchmark by which country music is judged. The career Williams didn’t have, the one in which further age and experience would have lent still greater depths to both his wracked voice and exquisitely mournful songs, is a truly heartbreaking what-if? The Lost Notebooks is a partial answer to that question.