Album Review: Various Artists — The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Juli Thanki | October 4th, 2011

lostnotebooksCompleting 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.

3.5 Stars

Listen to The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

  1. Ken Morton, Jr.
    October 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

    That Holly Williams track is spectacular. Juli, your description of reverently honoring her grandfather is right on. The LA Times has a video of Holly doing a solo acoustic version of the song here for those that haven’t heard it yet:

  2. Andrew
    October 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I also like the Alan Jackson track. His voice is probably the most similar to Hank’s of the performers.

  3. Leeann Ward
    October 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I certainly understand the misgivings about the concept for this album, but I love the cast of artists nonetheless. The only song that I don’t like on this project is the Lucinda Williams track.

  4. Trailer
    October 4, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Color me shocked that Sheryl whiffed on her attempt. <—sarcasm

    I'm looking forward to hearing this after this review though.

  5. Rick
    October 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I might have to give these songs a listen on Amazon, and especially the Holly Williams cut.

    I guess Sheryl Crow does better on great songs that are already finished as she did a fine job on Hank’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” on the mixed bag tribute album titled “Timeless”. Oh well…

  6. Mike McCall
    October 4, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    A thoughtful and insightful review, Juli, as usual. I understand the comparison to completing a painting, but I think there are important differences in the two forms. Music and lyrics are much more fluid, and from as far back as music goes, artists have taken lyrics written by others and discarded the melody for a new one, or taken melodies and discarded lyrics and applied their own. Hank’s lyrics have been covered thousands of times, often by those who completely alter the musical part of what he composed, and some have worked parts of his lyrics into other lines of their own. Unlike paintings, songs aren’t framed and finished with the first version, whether recorded by the songwriter or by someone else.
    Also, there’s a long tradition of artists taking poems and other written words and putting them to melodies and arrangements of their own, without any input of the person who wrote the words. Of course people also have added lyrics to established instrumental tunes, especially in jazz but not just that, without needing the approval of the original composer. The Carter Family built a career on altering others’ lyrics and songs without asking anyone’s approval.
    I suppose my point is that well-regarded artists taking lyrics left behind in notebooks and using them as an inspirational point to complete a song of their own doesn’t seem unethical to me. Except in a few cases, most of the lyrics on the album were fully written in a standard form, as Hank tended to do. The artists sometimes altered a word or two to better fit the melody, but most stuck as close as possible to the lyrics they chose. Nearly all of the artists involved have said they felt the lyrics had a built in cadence that suggested the melody, although there’s no way of knowing that what they heard was anything like what Hank heard. But to me it’s interesting to see what they came up with.
    The best part is that these lyrics, many of them truly outstanding and the kind of lines and themes only Hank would do in quite that way, are now public and open for others to complete.
    It’s a shame Hank didn’t live and have a chance to record them, had he chosen to. He was still drawing on songs written years earlier in his last year of recording. And some of these songs were written in 1951 and 1952, so he may well have planned on doing them. I wish he’d lived so that we would have found out. But since he didn’t, I think it’s great that other artists found it worthy of doing their best with lyrics they felt compelled and challenged to finish.
    Also, these aren’t the first recordings of the songs Hank left behind. Hank Jr. did six of them on a 1969 album called “Songs My Father Left Me,” and the great Mickey Newbury set at least two notebook songs to his melodies and put them on record. I don’t know if anyone said it was unethical for him to do so, but he likely didn’t care what others said.
    I agree with much of your list of favorites, although the Patty Loveless song is another one of mine, and the only real uptempo song on the record. I love that one, and she sings the hell out of it.
    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful review.

  7. Mike McCall
    October 4, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Rick–You can hear a live version of Holly’s song on the LA Times blog, here’s a link:
    If anyone is intested in hearing the Jack White song, Rolling Stone is streaming the recorded version:

  8. Jeremy Dylan
    October 4, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Completing unfinished Hank Williams songs is a bit like taking a Sharpie to unearthed Da Vinci sketches.

    That’s a bit of a rough analogy on Crowell, Dylan, etc.

  9. Leeann Ward
    October 4, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I’m with Rick on Crow’s track on the Hank Williams Tribute. It was one of the highlights of an otherwise uneven albumn. She did a fine job on the Carter Family tribute too. I must just like her doing country music though, because I also like her track on this album and even her duet on Kid Rock’s “Picture.”

  10. Barry Mazor
    October 5, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    For anybody interested, I have some brief thoughts on this project from Alan Jackson, Holly Williams, and producer Mary Martin in today’s Wall StreetJournal–here

  11. Rick
    October 5, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Barry, you are such a shill! (lol) Thanks for the link, its a fine article indeed.

  12. J.R. Journey
    October 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I agree with Mike M. Music has always been shaped to fit the singer’s and musician’s strengths and tastes. Most of the artists, even the rockers, kept really close to the traditional sound Hank Williams most likely would have recorded in. The Holly Williams track (with Hank Jr. singing harmony) is my favorite so far, but aside from the Crow and Dylan tracks, I’m loving them all.

    Great review and I loved reading backstory behind the lyrics and their history in Barry Mazor’s article.

  13. Jon
    October 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Juli and Mike make as strong a case as can be made for the project, but it still makes me uncomfortable, as much for the way it’s framed as for what it actually is. It’s not really a Hank Williams record, is it? But his name is far and away the most prominent one on the cover. And these artists didn’t really “collaborate with” Hank Williams, did they? Yet that’s how it’s being portrayed, by sloppy writers if not by those who put the project together. I realize that “A Miscellany of Hank Williams Lyrics and Lyric Fragments Sometimes Altered Slightly And Set To Music By Other People” isn’t a terribly sexy title, but it has the virtue of being more accurate, and therefore more respectful of the realities of creative processes.

  14. Jeremy Dylan
    October 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    The Patty Loveless track is pretty wonderful, and deserving of being singled out, but the record is pretty grand across the board.

    Norah Jones played her track on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle back in 2008 –

    The Gill & Crowell number is a real delight, and it’s great to see them continuing their commitment to reintroducing recitations in country music, which they did marvelously in ‘It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night’ back on the Notorious Cherry Bombs album.

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