My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

In his lifetime Hank Williams was keen to be recognised as a songwriter and grateful for pop covers f his work. in the years since his tragic and self-induced death, his songs have been covered from artists across the This album presents a dozen songs based on lyrics or scraps of lyrics left by Hank Williams, which have been completed by contemporary artists. It is an interesting project if a controversial one, and I would have liked it to be clearer what each participant contributed to the creative process. The tunes are all newly composed; the lyrics apparently range from completed lyrics which need only the music to be added (‘The Love That Faded’, the original manuscript lyric for which is the only one to be reproduced in the liner notes) to just a couple of lines serving as springboard for a modern songwriter’s inspiration. Each artist also uses his or her usual producer and their own selection of studio musicians.

The results range from the excellent to the dire, with some in between. The artists include both country singers-songwriters and those from other genres with a longstanding appreciation for country music and Hank Williams in particular, with Bob Dylan the first to be approached. Perhaps unsurprisingly those artists with a deeper grounding in country music have produced results more in keeping with the original, and more to my personal taste.

The best track is Alan Jackson’s ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’, which opens the set and manages to sound genuinely inspired by Hank, helped along by Keith Stegall’s sensitively authentic production, the excellent recreation of the Drifting Cowboys by the likes of Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin and Alan’s straightforward reading. It really doesn’t feel like pastiche, but a genuine unknown Hank Williams song, and one which stands up in its own right as an excellent song.

Vice Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborated on ‘I Hope You Shed A Million Tears’, and perform the song together. The Drifting Cowboys’ Don Helms provides added authenticity by guesting on steel on what must have been one of his last recording sessions (he died in 2008). Gill’s sweet vocal is interspersed with Crowell’s narration – the latter sounds more authentically Hank, but Gill sounds lovely and the final result is a fine song in its own right. I loved Crowell’s line, “I loved you like there’s no tomorrow, then found out that there’s not“. Merle Haggard tackles Hank’s religious side, giving a simple retelling of ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ an attractive melody.

Patty Loveless and husband Emory Gordy Jr carried out the writing duties on, and Patty sings the up-tempo ‘You’re Through Fooling Me’, which is highly enjoyable and sounds convincingly like a hillbilly song from the late 1940s if not necessarily a Hank Williams song. It would have fitted in well on either of her last two albums.

These four songs are the ones for country fans to download if going the digital route, and are all well worth adding to your digital library.

Hank’s grand daughter Holly Williams gives the family’s seal of approval to the project, and is repsosible for another highlight, although like a number of the artists included, her melody, while perfectly attractive, does not sound quite like a Hank Williams song. She delivers a smoothly sultry vocal on ‘Blue Is My Heart’, which is a very strong song in its own right, supported by her father on (uncredited) harmony. Norah Jones’s song, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ has a jazz-based tune and a stripped down production set to the acoustic guitars of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also add tasteful harmonies. It is pleasant listening but ultimately lightweight, without the emotional intensity the lyrics demand. Lucinda Williams’s effort, ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’, has the opposite problem – a positive love song which sounds more like a dirge.

I was bored by Sheryl Crow’s ‘Angel Mine’ on first listen, but the multi-tracked vocals give it a folky feel which works quite well. Levon Helm’s distinctive vocal on ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ (co-written with Helm’s producer Larry Campbell) has a nice old-time feel, backed up nicely by the backing vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, but is not the most interesting song.

The songs completed and sung by Bob Dylan (‘The Love That Faded’) and Jack White (‘You Know That I Know’) suffer from both gentlemen’s limited (to put it kindly) vocal ability, although they are both good songs. I would have really enjoyed ‘You Know That I Know’, an accusatory cheating song, if only a more competent singer had been allowed to front the performance, as White is awful. Dylan is not much better, but the sensitive production of his track is some recompense. His son Jakob is an unimpressive and bland vocalist and the melody of his song, ‘Oh Mama, Come Home’, lacks the urgency of the lyric.

Multi-artist tributes or concept albums always tend to be hit and miss, and this is no exception. There are enough tracks which work for this to be worth hearing.

Grade: B

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4 responses to “Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 27, 2011 at 10:02 am

    This is not the first time a bunch of of old Hank WIlliams lyrics have been set to music by someone else. Hank WIlliams Jr found some lyrics written by his father, which Hank Jr set to music (in some cases Hank Jr may have completed a partially completed lyric) – the album, issued in 1969 was titled SONGS MY FATHER LEFT ME and was issued by MGM in 1969. It was a very good (and cohensive) album which yielded one hit, “Cajun Baby”

    • luckyoldsun October 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      The spin that record labels and artists give to recordings just that–spin.
      When a compilation CD is issued, they’ll sayit has some rare recording that’s “available on CD for the first time” even if all the recordings have been issued on CD and every other format multiple times.
      With new recordings, they’ll create some narrative to go along with it. Roseanne Cash is recorging an album of old standards? It’s based on a list handed to her by Johnny Cash of songs she must learn. Do I believe that? No. But so what? Her album of country standards sold, while other albums of standards put out by Lorrie Morgan and Tanya Tucker around the same time sunk without a trace.

      If the music sounds good, I’ll even pretend I believe whatever cock and bull story they use to sell it.

    • Ken Johnson October 28, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      One article I read about this project portrayed it as the FIRST time that Hank Williams’ unfinished compositions would see the light of day. Like Paul I immediately thought of “Songs My Father Left Me” because that is my all-time favorite Hank, Jr. album. “Cajun Baby” is a truly great song and Hank, Jr’s performance was superb. That’s another great album that has never been reissued on CD though a few of the tracks are available on various Hank. Jr. CD compilations. The Hank, Jr “Living Proof” box set included two unissued songs from the sessions for that album, “Somebody’s Lonesome” and “You Broke Your Own Heart.” Back in the days when Hank, Jr. could really sing.

  2. Ben Foster October 29, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I can understand the questions of ethics raised by this project, but I do still find the concept quite interesting. I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but I might at least have to cherry-pick the Jackson and Loveless tracks.

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