Review: Various Artists – The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Columbia, 2011)
Fifty-eight years after his death, rare Hank Williams material continues to surprise and delight his fans. Last year’s official release of the Mother’s Best radio transcriptions [1 2], and last month’s reissue of the remastered Health & Happiness shows, reacquainted listeners with Williams’ brilliance as a singer and live entertainer. This month’s surprise is a collection of songs fabricated anew from lyrics left behind in Williams’ notebooks. The songs are rendered by a few obvious picks – Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and Merle Haggard; but also some less obvious suspects, including Norah Jones and Jack White, who turn in winningly heartfelt performances.
Given that Williams never recorded these lyrics, this is less a covers album than a tribute. Unlike the bombast of resyncing Elvis voice with modern arrangements (i.e., Viva Elvis), or even MGM’s overdubbing of Williams’ own recordings, the lovesick blues boy’s voice is heard here in the tone and temper of his lyrics. The artists revel in the opportunity to create the first musical version of these words, and their choices say a lot about their relationship to Williams. Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell are straightforward and solemn as their vintage arrangements of guitar, steel, bass and fiddle display their direct artistic links to Williams. Norah Jones, on the other hand, gives Williams’ “The Love That Faded” beautifully blue harmonies, tinted with jazz and a hint of Mexico in the guitar runs.
The singers, musicians and producers breathe life into lyrics that have been in stasis for more than fifty years. The results vary from tunes you could swear you’d heard Williams sing, to personalized tributes that meld the singer’s trademarks with the blue emotion Williams etched into his notebooks. Jack White drops the bombast of his recent production for Wanda Jackson, opting instead for an economic country sound dominated by Donnie Herron’s ghostly steel guitar; elsewhere, Vince Gill’s high-and-lonesome vocal is balanced by Rodney Crowell’s heartfelt recitation. Similarly to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, these sessions close a loop between generations, bringing the progeny full circle to the feet of the master.