By ALAN LIGHT
Published: September 23, 2011
BOB DYLAN has long claimed Hank Williams as an influence and an inspiration. In his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles Volume One,” Mr. Dylan recounted his discovery of that country giant’s music in the 1950s. “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”
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Mr. Dylan added that when he got word of Williams’s death at the age of 29 on New Year’s Day, 1953, the news “hit me squarely on the shoulder.”
“Intuitively I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away,” he continued.
With a new project titled “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” Mr. Dylan is doing his part to keep the work of one of America’s greatest songwriters — the author of classics like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold Cold Heart,” and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” — in the spotlight. The album collects the lyrics for a dozen unrecorded songs by Williams, set to melodies and recorded by an array of rock and country stars, including Jack White, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crow. “The Lost Notebooks” is being released on Oct. 4 on Mr. Dylan’s imprint, Egyptian Records, in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Columbia Records. (The only previous release on Egyptian was a 1997 group tribute to the country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.)
Artists who participated in the album, which has been in the works for almost a decade, expressed their sense of honor at being asked to complete the work of such a monumental musician. “There’s a lot of magic still left in these songs,” said Alan Jackson, who opens the album with “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too.” Ms. Jones, who sings the bluesy, melancholy “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” said she found the idea behind the project “really daunting,” but that “the people who were putting it together were doing it with respect and love and creativity, and I had trust in that.”
Lucinda Williams — whose poet father met Hank Williams the month before the singer died and Ms. Williams was born — felt such an emotional connection to her selection, “I’m So Happy I Found You,” that she sang it immediately before she and her husband exchanged vows at their onstage wedding in 2009. The seeds of the project were planted in 2002 when the all-star Hank Williams tribute album “Timeless” (also with Mr. Dylan, Ms. Williams and Ms. Crow) won the Grammy for country album of the year. One of that record’s executive producers, the veteran manager and A&R executive Mary Martin, was approached by Peggy Lamb, the Hank Williams authority at Williams’s publishing company, Acuff-Rose. Ms. Lamb told her about the cardboard box containing four notebooks and scattered scraps of paper full of Williams’s unrecorded lyrics (66 songs in all) that was locked in a vault in her office. Williams’s family had passed the material to Acuff-Rose soon after the singer died, but its existence wasn’t widely known until a few of the pages were reprinted in the book “Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway,”
“Nashville is a small community,” said Ms. Martin, who worked with Mr. Dylan’s legendary manager Albert Grossman and first introduced Mr. Dylan to the members of the Band. “If three of us have a passion, we’re bound to end up in a bar together.”
Initially Ms. Lamb’s idea was to ask one artist to record a full album based on the manuscripts. Ms. Martin approached Mr. Dylan, sending him 27 of them; he weighed the idea for “about a year and a half,” she said, before replying that “the task is too mighty.” He chose one song, “The Love That Faded,” for himself — setting lines like “Vows that we made turned into lies/My life is empty, my lonely heart cries” to a chugging waltz with a pedal-steel guitar refrain — and they started coming up with a roster of potential contributors and sending them lyrics to consider; Mr. Jackson was the first artist asked.
Ms. Martin said that some of the choices — Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young — opted not to participate and laughed as she described Mr. Dylan’s wondering why they weren’t involving Luciano Pavarotti.
The finest of the “Lost Notebooks” lyrics offer the economy and precision that characterized Williams’s work. Given the range of styles in which Mr. Williams wrote, from the spiritual revelation of “I Saw the Light” to the physical joy in “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” the selections of each artist can be telling. Though there were a number of gospel songs among the lyrics, only Mr. Haggard chose a religious theme, the album’s closer, “The Sermon on the Mount.” The sly humor of “You Know That I Know” feels like familiar territory for Mr. White. The tradition-minded country singers Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell utilize a recited section, like those on the records Williams made as the street preacher character Luke the Drifter, in “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears” (and called on Williams’s pedal steel player, Don Helms, for what turned out to be his final recording session; he died in 2008).
Ms. Crow said she didn’t feel intimidated by the idea of finishing a master’s work. “It’s meant to be a project honoring him and his legacy,” she said. “It’s not really a contest, so I didn’t feel there would be any judgment.”
Still, most of the songs on the “Lost Notebooks” album hew to Williams’s sound; Ms. Martin noted that it was difficult to settle on a sequence because so many of the artists submitted waltzes.
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The least familiar name among the contributors is Holly Williams, Williams’s granddaughter, who has previously released two albums of folk-inflected country originals. She had to add two verses of her own to the song fragment “Blue Is My Heart,” on which her father, Hank Williams Jr., adds backup vocals.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten so much into my family’s heritage,” she said. “Growing up I really didn’t understand his legacy. It was when I heard Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and Neil Young talking about Hank Williams that I started to understand. Now I just want to make sure that someone keeps it going for the next generation in our family.” (Williams’s grandson Shelton Hank Williams, who performs honky-tonk country and punk-metal as Hank 3, was not asked to participate, and has said that “it seems a little strange for somebody to finish a half-finished Hank Williams song.”)
Others have also expressed apprehension about the concept, whose closest precedent is the use of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics on the two “Mermaid Avenue” albums that Billy Bragg and Wilco released in 1998 and 2000. There is a Facebook group called Stop the Desecration of Hank Williams Unfinished Songs. Chet Flippo, the editorial director of CMT and CMT.com, recently wrote that the album is “utterly fascinating” but also asked, “If you were a painter and were asked to execute a painting based on a very rudimentary fragment of sketches by Picasso, would you do that?”
Jakob Dylan, Bob’s son, whose inclusion on the album marks the first time his work has appeared side by side with his father’s, was circumspect about the project. “I wouldn’t be so lofty or arrogant to think I was actually co-writing with Hank Williams,” he said. “This was one way to interpret the lyrics, but I don’t think it defines the song.” Ms. Crow saw it as a challenge that might help her own songwriting. “I think whenever you’re playing tennis with John McEnroe, it ups your level a little,” she said, “so I hope this did something for my own art.”
Most of the musicians, though, immediately recalled the thrill they felt when first given their assignment. “This has got to be one of the coolest things ever,” Mr. Jackson said. “To be credited as writing a song with Hank Williams, that means more to me than winning a Grammy.”
‘It Felt Like I Did Conjure the Ghost’
Some of the artists who participated in the “Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” album discuss how they approached the song they selected.
“You’ve Been Lonesome, Too”
The song I chose was pretty complete, where some of the others felt a little more rambling. The melody just kind of jumped out — that was the easy part. I wanted it to be a tribute, to do it as much like Hank as I could. I recorded with the same instrumentation he used, no drums. I was trying to sing like Hank. The guys in the band all said it felt kind of haunting in the studio. Everybody got goose bumps.
Hank had such a distinct cadence to his writing. I just picked up the lyric and read it, and the flow of reading it set up how I would sing it. I could feel the tempo, how he would have sung it, where he might have yodeled. I tried to picture myself sitting around with Hank or the Carter Family, to get myself into that place. I played a 1930s Martin guitar, something that felt like it would have been in the room.
“Oh, Mama, Come Home”
All the lyrics I looked through already had a melody inherent in the writing, so I picked something where it just kind of busted out at me. I thought it was important to stick with a melody that he might have used, but I didn’t try to mimic or replicate his sound. These songs really are timeless, so I didn’t think there was a need to be precious.
“I’m So Happy I Found You”
I immediately picked this one, because it was so unusual for a Hank Williams song: it’s a happy love song. I didn’t change anything in the lyrics, I felt like that was sacred. I initially cut it with my band, but it sounded too straight or something, so I cut it with just me and my guitar. That gave it a more languid, jazzy feel. It felt like I did conjure the ghost, but that wasn’t a new feeling. I’ve always had such affinity for his music, I felt that connection already.