[sic] Magazine

Hank Williams – The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams

How to categorise this album is by no means an easy task. Is it a careful work of historical restoration taking the mother lode of lyrics produced in 4 large notebooks by Hank Williams , the legendary genius of the country movement and treating them to latter day reverence? Alternatively, is it an act of retro-fitting Williams’s copious lyrics, giving them a pristine new revamp in song structures imagined by an impressive range of performers? #

Ultimately, it’s a bit of both and has, at its heart, the ultimate archivist in the form of the one and only Bob Dylan acting as the guiding curator for a treasure trove that he was first offered as far back as 1967 when he was approached with a shoebox full of Williams’s lyrics. The rights for these unfinished songs were only acquired in 2004 but, as Rolling Stone states, Dylan has performed a remarkable feat here, offering these base metals to a range of great songwriters and turning “ a vaguely necrophiliac idea into a startling reincarnation “.

Hank Williams was the high lonesome prophet of honkytonk country who wrote the greatest heartbreaking classics of the genre. He was also the sad template for the ‘live fast die young’ philosophy, which has taken so many artists at a criminally young age and which saw him in the grave by the age of 29 ravaged by morphine and alcohol.

Despite the passing of 60 years since his death in 1953, his legacy grows at pace and he has previously been covered by artists ranging from Nat King Cole to The Mekons . On this album, Dylan has assembled a top notch team, asked them to choose a lyric from the notebooks and set it to music. All have thankfully largely followed the Williams ‘house style’ and, as such, the songs are immediately accessible and strangely familiar despite their newness.

To be fair, all participants come out of the exercise with credit – Jakob Dylan probably producing the most modern reading of the lyrics in the lovely alt-country style ballad ‘Oh Mama Come Home’, while the most classic interpretation comes from the excellent country neo-traditionalist Alan Jackson in the form of ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’ in which the ghost of Williams is most clearly invoked.

In between, there are are some great songs, not least from the always impressive Norah Jones who is no stranger to Hank Williams covers with her previous version of ‘Cold Cold Heart’. Her hint of Tex Mex in the sumptuous ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’, sung in her smoky voice, is a true joy and an album highlight.

More rough hewn and invoking the outlaw elements of Williams’s songwriting is the song by former White Stripes main-man Jack White , whose ‘You Know That I Know’ demonstrates yet again that Hank Williams’s words amounted to him being the Shakespeare of cheating songs.

Aside from providing the guiding principles Bob Dylan himself contributes the ‘The love that faded’ showing that the old curmudgeon is still in great voice, but even more remarkable is the unmistakable vocal of The Band ‘s Levon Helm , whose ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ is underpinned by his earthy Southern pastoralism.

Talking of fine voices, Lucinda Williams is almost the female counterpoint to Helm and her ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’ is one of the saddest of the collection; it is however another Williams that provides the most fitting tribute. Indeed, Holly Williams is the granddaughter of Hank Williams and her ‘Blue Is My Heart’ deserves to enter the canon of great country music songs. The whole thing is topped off with a fine contribution from the old ‘Okie from Muskogee’ Merle Haggard , whose ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ is a fitting conclusion to proceedings.

It’s a very fair bet that if Hank Williams had got round to recording the lyrics in the notebooks that further classics would have been added to a repertoire already sardine-packed with some of the best country songs ever recorded. That this exercise guided by Dylan succeeds in cementing that reputation is a testimony to the talents of the songwriters concerned, to whom we should offer a very loud vote of thanks for this excellent piece of musical refurbishment.