He’s been dead nearly 60 years now, but the fascination with the life and music of Hank Williams continues unabated. For proof there’s The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a daunting but eventually heartening collection of some of the country music cornerstone's unfinished songs as completed by an array of modern artists.
When he died in 1953, Williams left a suitcase filled with notebooks containing song ideas, some finished, others only fragments. Bob Dylan was originally approached to complete some of the material, but after thinking about it for 18 months decided the task was “too mighty.” The collection now appears on Dylan’s personal label, Egyptian, which previously had only released a Jimmie Rodgers tribute in 1997, and features a mix of familiar names from both the country and pop world.
Except of Jack White, who foolishly tries to recreate Williams’ warble, and Sheryl Crow, who must have it her contract that she appear on every tribute album or play at every benefit/all-star concert ever produced, the performances are uniformly in the spirit of Williams’ legacy. Each succeeds at staying within that artist’s purview, from Alan Jackson’s “You’ve Been Lonesome Too” and Lucinda Williams’ “I’m So Happy I Found You” to Levon Helm’s “You’ll Never Again Be Mine.”
There’s a bit of nepotism involved with Jakob Dylan and granddaughter Holly Williams appearing. The latter being joined by her daddy Hank, Jr. on “Blue is My Heart” is one of the disc’s highlights along with Norah Jones' stark yet humble reading of “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?” Merle Haggard rounds things out with “The Sermon On the Mount,” which demonstrates his understanding of what Williams stood for by keeping it brief (2:08) and twangy.
Like the Billy Bragg & Wilco Mermaid Avenue project that put unfinished Woody Guthrie songs to music, The Lost Notebooks has it’s detractors. It’s fair to point out that these songs were unfinished for a reason, but that doesn’t make listening to what Dylan, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, and the rest have done with them any less enjoyable.
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