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Hank Williams's country music legacy
Bob Dylan's record label is releasing The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a collection of works by various well-known artists who have added new music to 12 of Williams's previously unpublished lyrics, writes Graeme Thomson
In his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan recalled that when he first heard Hank Williams, "the sound of his voice went through me like an electric rod". Over the years Dylan has needed little persuasion to display his reverence for the country music legend. He paid tribute to Williams in the liner notes to his first two albums, has covered his songs countless times and, in 2001, contributed to Timeless, a star-studded compilation of contemporary artists plundering the Williams songbook to reimagine such classics as Your Cheatin' Heart, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and Cold, Cold Heart.
This month Dylan goes one better. His record label, Egyptian, is releasing TheLost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a unique new album featuring Williams's spiritual descendants - among them Jack White, Norah Jones, Rodney Crowell and Dylan himself - as well as one of his own bloodline in the form of his granddaughter Holly Williams. The project does more than simply pay homage: by adding newly composed music to 12 of Williams's previously unpublished lyrics, it provides a moving coda to the career of the man who, says Dylan, wrote "the archetype rules of poetic songwriting".
"It was such a heady idea, this over-the-top romantic notion that we were collaborating with Hank Williams," says Crowell, who recorded the stinging I Hope You Shed a Million Tears with Vince Gill. "That's a very exalted place to be. I once wrote a song posthumously with Roy Orbison, but with Hank Williams the sense of history was even stronger, because it's the music of my childhood. I must admit I've said it a couple of times: 'Hey man, I've written a song with Hank Williams!'"
The tale behind The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is long and a little mysterious. When Williams died in the early hours of New Year's Day, 1953, succumbing at the age of 29 to a combination of too much alcohol, too many pills and a life scarred by heartache, he left behind not just one of the most significant legacies of any songwriter before or since, but also a brown leather briefcase filled with ideas for songs he was destined never to write.
Scrawled into four bound notebooks, these lost lyrics remained in the possession of his publisher, Acuff-Rose, for decades. "People who loved and adored Hank always knew about them, but not a lot of other people did," says Mary Martin, the veteran A&R executive who curated the album.
When Acuff-Rose was bought by Sony Music Publishing in 2002 the unpublished Williams material went with it, and a plan started to emerge to do something with these words. Following the success of Timeless, which she also oversaw, Martin was asked to put together a record based on the best of the notebooks. "My God, what an honour that was," she says. "We took a really good look at all the lyrics from the four notebooks and decided which songs had the best potential. Some were maybe only two stanzas, some were more well-formed." The initial idea was for just one artist to record all 12 songs. And who better than uber-fan Dylan? Happy to jump on board, he went away with the notebooks and set to work. Eighteen months later he returned, apologetic and empty-handed. "He said, 'I can't do this'," says Martin. "So his manager Jeff Rosen suggested it could be a compilation record, with Dylan doing only one song."
In the end he contributed The Love That Faded, a suitably weathered waltz. The next step was determining who else should be involved. Suggestions ranged from Eminem to U2 to Dylan's personal favourite, Pavarotti, none of whom made the final cut for various reasons.
One of the decisive factors was that Martin wanted everyone involved to feel a sense of kinship with Williams and his music. It was agreed that each and every participant should be a songwriter who understood the historic import of putting music to these words. "The only criterion was that they may have been honoured to have been asked," says Martin. "I really love the affection everyone put into it". Each artist was sent 27 different lyrics and asked to choose one to write music for and then record. "It was very liberal," says Martin. "They could add a verse or a bridge or a chorus, whatever their creative muse told them to do. They were told that whatever they produced would go on the record as they had done it. There was no creative interference.
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Sometimes only the tiniest spark was needed to ignite a song. Crowell and Gill based their twilit recitation on just two haunting lines that jumped out from Williams's old notebooks. "I just saw 'I hope you shed a million tears / I hope you suffer too' and thought, 'Wow, that's good'," says Crowell "Pretty bitter! And that's what we worked from. We weren't looking for a lot of words, just enough to hang it on." To add to the sense of occasion, Crowell asked Williams's steel guitar player, Don Helms, to play on the session. He died shortly afterwards.
Dylan and Martin were especially impressed by Jack White's heartfelt contribution, You Know That I Know, and the lovely Blue Is My Heart, which was co-written and recorded by Williams's granddaughter Holly. "It was actually only eight lines when I first got it," says Holly Williams. "Bob Dylan and Mary Martin gave me all the lyrics but this song spoke to me unlike any other in the stack. I wrote two more verses and added a bridge, but I'm hoping you can't tell where Hank's lyrics end and mine begin! It was such a beautiful lyric I felt connected to it immediately when I picked up my guitar and tried to write to it."
Slowly - very slowly - other songs started to arrive, from the likes of Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm and Dylan's son Jakob. Unlike Timeless, which featured slightly more leftfield acts such as Beck and Keb' Mo, The Lost Notebooks plays a straighter bat. There are no rap, metal or emo reinterpretations in this deeply respectful piece of work. "The word that I'm high on is legacy," says Martin. "And what's wrong with that, because it's truthful and it's honest."
Ten years from drawing board to record stores, the album has been a labour of love for all involved, and proof positive that Hank Williams continues to exert a powerful pull on generation after generation of artists and audiences. Holly Williams has no doubt that his enduring significance has less to do with the tragic mythology that has grown around his short, unhappy life, and everything to do with the quiet, simple majesty of his songs.
"They are timeless, absolutely timeless," she says. "Every person, every race, every age, every language can relate to his lyrics and beautiful songs. We all know heartbreak, we all know joy, we all know spiritual struggles, we all can relate, no matter how different we may be deep down. They will and should always be cherished for their brilliance."
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