By David Werther.
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Sony Music Entertainment, 2011), Alan Jackson, Bob Dylan, Norah Jones et al.
He told his wife he needed "to straighten some things with the Man"; every time he closed his eyes he saw "Jesus coming down the road."* Subsequently, a road trip to some New Year's gigs ended with an overdose of alcohol and drugs; the 29-year-old died in the back seat of his Cadillac. That was January 1st, 1953. In April 2010, Sig Gissler, representing the Pulitzer Prize Board, described the deceased as "a creative force that influenced a wide range of other musicians and performers," and noted "his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity."**
Hank Williams lived to record 35 singles, 11 of them hitting number 1. And, now — incredibly — we have a chance to hear more from the man who recorded "Mansion on the Hill," "You Win Again," "Your Cheatin Heart" and "I Saw the Light." Not that some of Williams's recordings, hitherto unknown, were discovered in a studio vault, rather that Sony/ATV Music, owners of unrecorded Williams's lyrics, i.e. "the lost notebooks," offered some very gifted artists a shot at setting them to music and recording them for a CD collection.
Bob Dylan and son Jakob each take a turn, as do Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams, Patty Lovelace, Norah Jones, Alan Jackson, Jack White, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Cheryl Crowe, Merle Haggard, and Hank's granddaughter Holly, with some vocal assistance from her father, Hank Williams Jr. One might think it would be jarring to move from Alan Jackson to Bob Dylan and then Norah Jones and on to Jack White … but it's not. Perhaps this is because, directly or indirectly, Hank Williams helped to shape these artists' styles and sensibilities, and they are inspired by his lyrics.
As one would expect, there is anguish aplenty; "vows that we made turned into lies" ("The Love that Faded"), "if your heart has known such pain until death, it's cried, only to have the Lord refuse, then you've been by my side" ("You've Been Lonesome, Too"), "I loved you like there's no tomorrow, found out that there's not" ("I Hope You Shed a Million Tears"). However, the heartache is not unmitigated. It's hard not to smile, hearing Patty Loveless sing "you're through foolin' me, 'cause I'm through foolin' with you." And, listening to Merle Haggard end the CD with "The Sermon on the Mount" puts all the jealousies, folly, and lies in perspective; we've all got "to straighten some things with the Man."