The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is exactly what its name suggests — songs taken from the songwriter’s notebooks, left behind in a briefcase and vaulted for the next 50-some-odd years. The release of this album continues the Williams’ legend by marking the first time these lyrics have been put in public, but meanwhile the roster of artists on the track listing is not only impressive, it’s mesmerizing. Let’s put it this way: if you walked into a restaurant and saw these 13 musicians sitting around a table drinking whiskey and chewing hunks of steak, well, we’d never be allowed in that restaurant anyway, so let’s just stop dreaming.
The project, spearheaded by industry veteran Mary Martin and Hank Williams authority Peggy Lamb, began — of course — with one of the most legendary Hank Williams fans on earth, Bob Dylan. The original idea was to have Dylan record the album himself, his task to put music to each set of lyrics, finishing verses when necessary. In the decade this project tookn to complete, Dylan and company changed the idea: instead of it being an all-Dylan effort, they recruited a handful of artists who not only followed in Williams’ footsteps, but also helped define their generation in ways of their own. Their challenge was to channel the mystique of Hank Williams while still representing themselves.
The two tracks that most closely mirror how the great Hank may have written are at the front and back of the record. Alan Jackson’s sweet, delicate “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” is one of the truest Williams’ tunes on the disc, and Merle Haggard’s “Sermon on the Mount” is a solid end-note sung by a man only 10 years short of being considered one of Williams’ contemporaries. In between the two are the tunes that drew us in from the track listing: songs arranged by Dylan, Norah Jones and Jack White, to name just a few. Jones’ voice on “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart” is as smooth as ever, and Dylan’s style is as familiar as the street you grew up on. Both Dylan and Jones walk the line of originality and homage delicately, and at no time do they cross too far to one side.
Jack White, who is easily the odd-man out on this country album, did his best to transform from a rocker into a country crooner, but still has a ways to go. Even though he’s got the guitar chops to cut just about anything, his vocal chords are far better matched for modern grunge than they are for classic country. The tune he put music to, “You Know That I Know”, lacks the emotion that the lyrics warrant, even though White is certainly capable of showing that anger. But that’s not to say the song doesn’t warrant recognition. The very fact that White claims a kinship with Williams shows just how influential the man was: their music is not exactly similar. But despite having recorded 35 singles in six years before his death at the too-young age of 29, Williams’ way with words transcends not only time, it leaps across boundaries as well.
The tracks that truly stand out are the ones that you can feel. The heartfelt “I’m So Happy I Found You” is regaled so preciously by Lucinda Williams it’s as if she wrote it herself. You can practically hear her choking back tears as she sings the chorus, “I’m crying / ‘Cause I’m so happy / I found you”. Jakob Dylan’s tune “Oh, Mama, Come Home” is a modern take on a Williams song with a guitar part and chorus melody that catch your ear immediately, and Levon Helm’s arrangement of “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” carries that slow, sweet, Southern country swing.
Lyrically, just about every song on here could have been another Hank Williams hit. It’s not very surprising considering these artists had four whole notebooks of previously unpublished work to dig through and pick songs from, but again, it speaks wonders to Williams’ talent. As a young man in his 20s, Williams expressed feelings during a time when expressing feelings was faux pas. And almost 60 years after his death, both men and women of all ages can still identify with the words he wrote. They are timeless to the point that they can be made modern without losing a step.