A deserved and haunting evocation of what might have been.
Andrew Mueller 2011-09-22
Hank Williams was just 29 when he died on New Year’s Day 1953, having already composed the songbook which stands, surely forever, as the benchmark by which country music is judged. The career Williams didn’t have, the one in which further age and experience would have lent still greater depths to both his wracked voice and exquisitely mournful songs, is a truly heartbreaking what-if?
The Lost Notebooks is a partial answer to that question. These dozen tracks are effectively collaborations between Williams and some of the uncountable modern artists inspired by him. Each song is an unrecorded lyric salvaged from Williams’ notebooks, set to music by one of his spiritual – or, in the case of granddaughter Holly Williams, actual – descendents. Perhaps inevitably, the overall tone is reverent, verging on precious – everyone adheres faithfully to Williams’ template of rugged three-chord structures, twanging guitars, weeping violins and keening pedal steel.
Bob Dylan splutters winningly through the sprightly waltz of The Love That Faded, while his son Jakob offers a more polished reading of Oh, Mama, Come Home. Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell duet on the fabulously bitter I Hope You Shed a Million Tears. Jack White gets his punky Detroit snarl at least halfway to Williams’ Alabama drawl on You Know That I Know. Norah Jones – who has previously covered Williams to fine effect – rather steals the show with How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?. Merle Haggard brings proceedings to an appropriately sombre conclusion with the beautiful, understated The Sermon on the Mount.
It might have been indeed fitting for a dash of iconoclasm to have been stirred into the mix – perhaps from Williams’ splendidly ornery grandson, Hank Williams III, who has expressed reservations about the project. In the main, however, this is a deserved and haunting evocation of the merest fraction of what might have been.