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'Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams' finds good company in Bob Dylan

The singer-songwriter's long-in-the-works tribute to Hank Williams nears release, with kindred spirits like Holly Williams, Merle Haggard and Jack White tapping into the country legend's unreleased archive.

October 02, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
  • Musicians led by Bob Dylan tackle unrecorded lyrics of Hank Williams on Lost Notebooks.
Musicians led by Bob Dylan tackle unrecorded lyrics of Hank Williams on… (Sony Music )

Singer and songwriter Holly Williams, the granddaughter of country music giant Hank Williams, knew something big was up when Bob Dylan approached her at a gig several years ago and handed her a handful of song lyrics he wanted her to peruse.

"He didn't say anything," Williams recalled recently, "but I could immediately tell from the simple English and the cut-to-your-heart, lonesome lyrics. He said, 'These are some [Hank Williams] lyrics that were found, and they've asked me maybe to do a whole album, or I may have other artists do them.'"

That was the beginning of her involvement in "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," a long-gestating project that's finally seeing the light of day on Tuesday. Dylan, Holly Williams, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Jack White, Alan Jackson and half a dozen other musicians have taken part in a musical archaeology dig to complete and record songs left unfinished by Williams when he died at age 29 in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Year's Day in 1953, on his way to shows in North Carolina and Ohio.

The titles alone are enough to start Williams' aficionados salivating: "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears," "How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart," "The Love That Faded" and "The Sermon on the Mount," to cite just four.

Williams carried notebooks with him in a brown leather briefcase during his time on the road, jotting down thoughts, lines and verses of lyrics on their pages, as well as on the backs of envelopes, napkins or whatever else was available.

After he died, the stockpile of unpublished material — 66 songs among four notebooks — was kept in a fireproof vault at his Nashville publishing company, Acuff-Rose Publications. When Acuff-Rose was acquired by Sony ATV Music in 2002, the vault was transferred to the new owners' offices, kept under the watchful eye of longtime Acuff-Rose staffer Peggy Lamb, who still holds the title of "Hank Williams Catalogue Specialist."

Hank Williams Jr. culled several songs from the notebooks and recorded them on his 1969 album "Songs My Father Left Me," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's Country Albums chart, and songwriter Mickey Newbury also tackled a few during his lifetime. But other than that, the lyrics largely lay dormant for decades.

"They weren't hidden or kept from people, but they just became forgotten over time," said Michael McCall, writer and editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which throws a spotlight on the notebooks in its "Family Tradition" exhibit. "Once you see them, and see how strong the lyrics are, you're amazed that Hank hadn't recorded them, and sad that he didn't have the chance to."

With Dylan leading the way, there have been few aspersions cast over the artistic intent behind this project, for which there are scattered precedents, such as Brian Wilson's recent album "Brian Wilson Reimagines George Gershwin" in which the ex-Beach Boy was allowed by the Gershwin estate to finish and record two uncompleted songs.

In earlier generations, composers attempted from time to time to craft a fitting final movement for Schubert's famously "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8. And some daring writers have tried to finish books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Love of the Last Tycoon."

'Timeless' influence

After a 2001 all-star tribute album, "Hank Williams: Timeless," won a Grammy Award for country album of the year, interest in other projects ramped up. One of the producers of "Timeless," veteran A&R executive Mary Martin, was asked about other ways to call attention to material out of Williams' archive.

"Bob Dylan was given the first whack at doing 12 songs for a CD," Martin said, "and the estate was more than happy it should be a single artist doing that." Instead, Dylan opted for a multi-artist lineup, at which point project organizers began reaching out to singers who were also songwriters who had demonstrated a strong affinity for Williams and his music. The primary mission: to come up with music that fit the lyrics, though participants were allowed to add words, verses or bridges where Williams had left only fragments. The restriction was they couldn't alter the essential character of what Williams had jotted down.

A few declined, although Martin didn't name names. "Perhaps some people were intimidated," she said, "perhaps some tried and perhaps they just couldn't get there."

Those who jumped at the opportunity include Alan Jackson, who turned in what may be the album's most quintessential Hank Williams track, the album-opening "You've Been Lonesome, Too." Jack White snarls a quivering comeuppance to one who has rejected him in "You Know That I Know," and Jakob Dylan brings out Williams' folk-blues side in "Oh, Mama, Come Home." Dylan the pater grabbed "The Love That Faded," creating a floor-walking honky-tonk waltz through heartache:

The love that faded left me only tears

Days that were happy turned into lonely years

Vows that we made turned into lies

My life is empty, my lonely heart cries.

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