Album Review: Various Artists — The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
Completing unfinished Hank Williams songs is a bit like taking a Sharpie to unearthed Da Vinci sketches. The quality of The Lost Notebooks aside, the album’s very existence raises a question of ethics: Is it acceptable to complete a dead artist’s work when we don’t know what his intentions were with those fragments of lyrics? We don’t know how Hank would have arranged them, if he would have rewritten parts, or if he would have scrapped some of the songs altogether; because we don’t know what he would have wanted, listening to other artists’ interpretations of the work found on those notebook pages is a bit uncomfortable.
That said, the roster of contributing artists is largely A-list—including Merle Haggard, Levon Helm, and Bob Dylan—because, hey, if you’re going to pick folks to collaborate “with” the Hillbilly Shakespeare, you might as well pick the best; and they treat the material respectfully. Alan Jackson kicks the record off with a Hank-ish (in tone and arrangement) ballad called “You’ve Been Lonesome Too,” singing “If your heart has known such pain until for death it’s cryin’.” Wonderfully sad and beautifully sung, it sets the mood for the rest of the album.
For the most part, the songs on the record are weepers brimming with crying pedal steel; there’s nothing resembling Williams’ more playful tunes like “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” or “Move It on Over.” There are, however, a couple love songs: Lucinda Williams delivers a solid tune called “I’m So Happy I Found You,” but “Angel Mine,” after starting off fairly promising with a horn and mandolin intro, is sung lifelessly by Sheryl Crow and paired with a generic arrangement.
On the other end of the spectrum is “Blue is My Heart,” sung by Holly Williams with her father, Hank Jr., on backing vocals. The lyrics are gorgeous, and Williams’ vocal delivery sounds almost reverent as she sings the words of a grandfather she never met. Jack White also turns in a stellar performance with “You Know That I Know,” a gleefully spiteful tune that would have fit right in Williams’ discography. White chooses to insert a little more vibrato in his delivery than Williams ever did, but he sneers “You know that I know that you ain’t no good/And you wouldn’t tell the truth even if you could/Lying is a habit you practice wherever you go/You may fool the rest of this world/But you know that I know” like a classic country pro. Rounding out the record’s best tracks are Merle Haggard performing “Sermon on the Mount,” which sounds like a lost Luke the Drifter number and Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborating on song/recitation “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears.”
The worst part of the record is that we’ll never know what Hank Williams could have done with these lyrics if it weren’t for that fateful New Year’s Eve. But ethical issues aside, these artists are fine substitutes.
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