The Timeless Music of Hank Williams
The range of subjects of tribute albums is vast: everyone from the Beatles to Elvis, Cole Porter to Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega to Black Sabbath, the Carpenters to KISS—and that’s just skimming the top of the barrel. Yet despite their richness and quantity, tribute albums remain surprisingly overlooked and unrespected. Too often, tribute albums are viewed simply as an attempt to capitalize on an established star or to promote a label’s relatively unknown roster. Perhaps critics share the view of Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke who made reference in 1996 to the “tribute-albums-suck syndrome”. But I have to disagree.
Frankly, there are very fine tribute albums out there, such as Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt, Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard and REAL: The Tom T. Hall Project, records that rank as artistic achievements—and even the “bad” ones are valuable in terms of what they reveal about the original artist, the covering artist, the song itself, and the context in which both versions were written and/or performed. In “Like a Version: Cover Songs and the Tribute Trend in Popular Music”, George Plasketes explores the rationale, both commercial and artistic, behind most tribute albums, making a point worth repeating: “When a song is re-recorded, its genealogy unfolds. . . . The cover song invites comparison to the original, engaging the listener in a historical duet”. With this statement, Plasketes gets to the heart of what drives the cover song artistically and, by extension, the tribute album: its ever-evolving conversation.
Besides, doing a successful tribute is no easy task. George H. Lewis articulates the quandaries: “Tribute albums present a real dilemma for an artist. A listener will judge what you do by the original (which has to have been pretty damn great if there is a tribute album being made), so how close to the original do you cleave? If you go too close, you risk being a mimic—and who cares? If you get too original, many will not like the fact that their favorite has been messed with. And if a bunch of folks get too original, the cohesiveness of the original disappears”. How musicians and producers negotiate this slippery slope has much to do with the success of any tribute album.
The most recent high-profile tribute album in country music is Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute, a release on which some of the most respected singer/songwriters in rock and alternative country cover Hank Williams songs on a project released by the aptly named Lost Highway Records. As contributor Lucinda Williams tells Phyllis Stark of Billboard, “It’s interesting that it took a bunch of rock musicians to interpret Hank Williams. . . . Hank is bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool country. Contemporary country music is not about that”.
The result is, overall, satisfying. This is an album that illustrates, literally, how “timeless” Williams’ songs remain.
The Hank Williams tribute field is one that’s been well and creatively plowed. For example, country stars like George Jones, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash have done Hank’s songs—as have “uncountry” performers such as Rosemary Clooney with her take on “Half as Much” and Tony Bennett who recorded “Cold, Cold Heart”. And there are songs with Hank as their subject (e.g., “Midnight in Montgomery”, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, and “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul”). But Timeless shows that the ground remains fertile.
Timeless is the project of Luke Lewis who founded Lost Highway and produced the Grammy-winning The Complete Hank Williams, a comprehensive 10-CD set. Lewis, who’s not a fan of tribute records, tells Andrew Dansby and David Fricke of Rolling Stone, “I’d hate to call [Timeless] a ‘tribute’. I’ve never done a tribute record and always said I wouldn’t”. But this project, according to Lewis, “feels natural”. (He’s also not troubled by the fact that Timeless will help sell an extensive catalog.) Assisting with production were Mary Martin and Bonnie Garner.
Supplementing the album is Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway (DaCapo), a new coffee-table book by Colin Escott (award-winning music historian) and Kira Florita (a vice president of Marketing at Mercury and now at Lost Highway). Here Escott and Florita, who both worked with Lewis on the Williams box-set, present more than 300 previously unavailable pictures, letters, and artifacts. Clearly, there’s a tie-in, for although Timeless has attractive linernotes, there’s not the kind of historical content that should accompany a project like this; apparently for that, the listener needs to buy the book ($35.00).
Timeless evolved as artists selected a song and then arranged and recorded it independently, a strategy that led to the variety of musical textures that permeate the album and provide much of its richness.
The decision to open Timeless with Bob Dylan’s fast-shuffle version of “I Can’t Get You off of My Mind” is fitting on a number of levels. Dylan’s respect for Williams is well known, but there is also the way in which his voice represents not only America but the also the multivocality of any good tribute album. Perhaps Michael Masterson puts it best in his essay “I Hear America Singing in Bob Dylan’s Voice”: “In his vocal performance styles, Dylan sings a variety of versions of [a] song simultaneously. A result of his raspy, sliding vocal timbre is that he creates a musical texture that includes the potential voices of many others in society. He performs solo but expresses a multiplicity of voices”. In “I Can’t Get You off of My Mind”, Dylan’s heterophonic voice reflects the shared human experience at the heart of Williams’ music as well as the stylistic multivocality of Timeless.
From there, the album takes a variety of approaches to Williams’ music. Some arrangements are classic honky-tonk. Rocker Sheryl Crow shows her country side—and that she can yodel with the best of them—on “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, a classic account of despair grounded in the fact that nothing goes right for the singer. The slide guitar and Crow’s voice, made more vulnerable by her yodeling, reinforce how blue she is. Tom Petty’s version of “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)” is angry, perfectly suited to the song’s theme of ultimatum. Enhancing this is the song’s arrangement with Petty playing all the instruments except for a defiant steel guitar contributed by legendary steel player Jay Dee Maness.
Probably the most eerie honky-tonk song comes, fittingly enough, from Hank III, Hank’s grandson. The traditional arrangement of “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” is perfect, both a musical and genetic echo of Hank, Sr. The irony lies in the fact that the singer keeps threatening to leave but, come the next verse, he’s still there. Hank III throws in a yodel at the end, another sign of how blue he is and how much he’s like his granddaddy.
Some musicians pursue a more folk-oriented sound. Mark Knopfler & His Band get some help from Emmylou Harris on “Lost on the River”, a song Hank wrote with Miss Audrey that features the mandolin, an instrument Williams rarely used. (And it’s probably safe to say that Harris’ vocal here surpasses that of Miss Audrey.) On Harris’ version of “Alone and Forsaken”, Knopfler & His Band return the favor, transforming the song into the kind of ballad Harris excels at. There’s also Ryan Adams’ take on “Lovesick Blues”, the number that got Williams’ career started. Adams begins by clearing his throat and snorting into the microphone before launching into a decidedly unpracticed version. He’s no yodeler, with his voice breaking throughout in this stripped-down arrangement that will have listeners either seeing Adams as sloppy (especially in light of Nick Tosches’ eloquent apology for this song in Where Dead Voices Gather), or as an interpretation without artifice that gets to the point of the blues: a music sung by anyone as a means of coping with despair.
Of particular note is Lucinda Williams’ cover of “Cold, Cold Heart”. She explains to Phyllis Stark, “I’ve always been a fan of Hank. . . . I remember listening to his stuff when I was a kid. My dad was a big fan of his”. She adds, “Singing Hank Williams’ songs . . . is how I first learned to crack my voice”. In this song of absolute powerlessness, Lucinda’s voice, like Hank’s, expresses complete abjection, the dobro musically echoing the hurt of a singer who cannot melt her lover’s “cold, cold heart” but also cannot bring herself to stop trying.
Others explore the elasticity of Williams’ music, showing how its universal themes transcend musical genre. There’s Keb’ Mo’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, the song Hank often cited as his personal favorite. Keb’ Mo’s bluesy guitar sings the whippoorwill’s song just as the violin provides the robin’s tears. The music gradually builds until all the instruments come together in the final verse—but even that can’t reach the singer. His version harkens back to Williams’ tutelage under Georgiana, Alabama’s local bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Keith Richards has a very slow take on “You Win Again”, complete with piano and saxophone. (I kept wondering if he had nodded off in the course of recording the song.)
Not to be missed, however, is Beck’s revision of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. His arrangement defies the “Vanilla hillbilly music” of the Drifting Cowboys that supported Hank’s lyrics and vocals. Here the music is very much in evidence, almost otherworldly and clearly manufactured as Beck provides both lead vocal and harmony. While the slide guitar grounds the song in the honky-tonk tradition, acknowledging its hillbilly past, the production places it squarely in the present. That is, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Also, in this song of comeuppance—you may cheat, but you’ll pay for it—Beck’s arrangement reinforces the theme: his singing of the lead and harmony vocals reiterates his prediction that his lover is doomed to experience the things he has.
All the songs on Timeless are about loss, the heartbreak that Hank Williams described so well. But with the album’s final track, it takes a thematic turn.
Timeless closes with a Fred Rose composition, “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night”, performed by Johnny Cash as the kind of recitation Williams loved so much as Luke the Drifter. Here the subject is “Mama”, a woman who couldn’t sleep until all her children were home; now, Mama is on her deathbed, calling her family around her and saying “The Lord’s Prayer”. “Then”, Cash intones, “she went to sleep”. He handles the recitation beautifully, his deep voice resonating with emotion. In the context of the music that’s preceded it on Timeless, the song suggests that while lovers may be fickle and fleeting, “Mama”, or family, is constant. Of course, the irony here is that neither Hank Williams nor Fred Rose had particularly stable families.
In the end, Timeless serves as another chapter in the evolving testament to the artistry of Hank Williams and his music. In his essay “Sing Me a Song About Ramblin’ Man”, Christopher Metress argues that, since his death, Williams has been redefined (e.g., as saint, outlaw, and ghost) to meet the changing needs of audiences. Metress concludes, “As soon as we have chiseled one version of Hank Williams’ life, we feel guilty knowing that our song tells us more about ourselves than about the man”. That may be true, but what Timeless tells us is that Hank Williams’ art remains as diverse and human as we are.