The lost notebooks of Hank Williams
A landmark recording was released in October that, unfortunately, has gone largely unnoticed. True fans of country music are probably on to this one, but I don’t think there are many country radio stations playing anything from this incredible release.
The recording is “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.”
Hank Williams was a songwriting fool. He was always writing something, either in one of his now infamous notebooks or on napkins, hotel stationary or other scraps of paper. Hank signed with Acuff-Rose Publications in 1946, the first music publishing company in Nashville that was established by Roy Acuff (at the time, the Garth Brooks of his day) and Fred Rose, a songwriter and record producer. As the legend goes, he showed up at the publishing offices with a few songs. Rose was impressed, but wary of the young songwriter. He told Williams to go out and write another song and come back in a couple of hours. Williams returned with the song “Mansion on a Hill,” which so impressed Rose that a deal was quickly made.
“Notebooks” spans the years of 1947 to 1951 and includes some 66 songs, some of which were unfinished. When Williams died in 1953, his mother, Lillian Stone, alerted the publishing company about a cardboard box containing lyrics that Hank had written but hadn’t recorded. Later that year, the company took possession of the box, finding the four notebooks. The notebooks were treated as the treasures that they were, and copyrights were applied to the unrecorded songs.
In the 1980’s Acuff-Rose Publications was sold to Gaylord Broadcasting, which also owned the Grand Ole Opry as well as the Opryland Hotel and the television show “Hee-Haw.” Gaylord eventually sold the publishing company to Sony/ATV and the notebooks were again transferred. Following the success of several Hank Williams compilation projects, it was decided to take a look at the notebooks to see if a project could be put together.
Bob Dylan was the first to be contacted, and he showed a strong interest. It was decided that Dylan’s Sony-related company, Egyptian Records, would become involved; instead of recording a full album by himself, Dylan would pick one of the songs to record, and other artists would be invited to choose a song to record and, if need be, completing the lyric.
The result is a stunning album featuring vocals by a diverse cast of artists including Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Lucinda Williams (no relation to Hank), Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, Holly Williams (Hank’s granddaughter), Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard and of course, Bob Dylan.
In the expertly written (and somewhat plagiarized by me) liner notes, Michael McCall says Williams “wasn’t a doomed, introspective genius anymore than he was a reckless rebel tearing his way through honky-tonks and wild women. Instead, he was a prankster, a man who enjoyed gathering friends for hunting and fishing trips, and a doting father who called out to his son from radio shows.” Still, when you listen to these unearthed songs, you hear sadness, loneliness, hurt, anger and despair.
With titles like “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too,” “The Love That Faded,” “Blue is My Heart,” “You’ll Never Be Mine Again,” and “You’re Through Fooling Me,” one would think this album is a complete downer, but when the chosen artists wrap their voices around Hank’s lyrics, it is a joyous occasion to hear 12 “new” Hank Williams songs for the first time.
There are numerous standout performances, including Dylan’s cover of “The Love That Faded,” a song written in 1947. A sample lyric: “The love that faded left me only in tears/Days that were happy turned into lonely tears/Vows that were made turned into lies/My life is empty, my lonely heart cries.”
On “How Many More Times Have You Broken My Heart?” Norah Jones sings “Night after night I’ve cried over you/Hoping and praying someday you’d be true/You took my world and tore it apart/How many times have you broken my heart?”
One of the most interesting songs on the disc is the arrangement that Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell came up with for “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears.” The song, with six verses and no chorus, starts off with Gill singing and then Crowell coming in with a spoken word on three of the verses. The second verse says, “Our love was like a sacred scroll/you never did yearn to read/I gave you my heart and soul/And you left it there to bleed.”
For my money, the most poignant and powerful performance is by Hank’s granddaughter, Holly Williams, daughter of Hank Jr. She takes ownership of “Blue is My Heart” and makes it her own. While not credited on the album, her dad, Hank Jr. makes an appearance on the track singing a line or two on the chorus. But it is Holly that brings it home with a voice that matches the ache in the lyrics. “Life is so bare since you said goodbye/There’s no tomorrow so why should I try/Joys of this life, they’re passing me by/Blue is my heart, blue is the sky.”
The tracks by Patty Loveless (one of the best country singers ever), Alan Jackson, and surprisingly, Jack White, are all in the groove as well. An interesting side note, on the Gill/Crowell recording, the steel guitar is played by Don Helms, a member of Hank Williams’ Original Drifting Cowboys band, and it may well be the last recording he ever made before his death.
Years ago Waylon Jennings asked, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” After listening to this album I would have to say, absolutely!