As we peruse the fine new country-roots excavation The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, one question comes to mind: How does all of this music by classic American songsmiths go missing in the first place?
Over the years, we have witnessed all kinds of instances when lost fragments of songs — usually lyrics without written musical accompaniment — have surfaced by numerous iconic artists. For instance, volumes of Woody Guthrie's unpublished lyrics were turned into the two Mermaid Avenue albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco.
That certainly doesn't trivialize The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a recording built around exactly what its title implies: a cardboard box containing four notebooks of hand-written lyrics by the country legend, along with notes scribbled on hotel stationery and the like, that date back more than 60 years. After being passed around among various publishing companies, the lyrics have been given music and life by the performers on The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams: Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Jack White, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Merle Haggard and Kentucky native Patty Loveless, among others.
It's tough not to head straight for the Dylan track, The Love That Faded, which is played as a dizzy waltz. Add to that the front-porch country stomp that White provides You Know That I Know and you have two technically imperfect voices exquisitely enhancing the fragile emotional terrain of Williams' lyrics.
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In fact, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams openly embraces some of the most pronounced emotive designs of the late songsmith's music — namely, the prevalence of serious heartbreak. We're not talking the candy-coated self-pity that passes for country today, but the kind of misery that leads to life-and-death regret and hopeful repentance.
Such strife is put on brilliant display with poetic simplicity during I Hope You Shed a Million Tears, an absolutely lethal duet that swings between sung verses by Gill and spoken passages by Crowell. "I loved you like there's no tomorrow," Crowell says dryly in one of the tune's more sobering turns, "and found out that there's not."
The delights hardly stop there. Levon Helm offers a regal Cajun country waltz (You'll Never Again Be Mine), Jakob Dylan serves up a light acoustic reverie that recalls his dad's Blood on the Tracks days (Oh, Mama, Come Home) and Haggard forges out a solemn country spiritual (The Sermon on the Mount).
The Williams family is represented by an oil-and-vinegar pairing of granddaughter Holly Williams and her dad, Hank Williams Jr. (Blue Is My Heart). Far more effective, though, is Loveless's powerfully confident performance of You're Through Fooling Me. The latter is the kind of stuff that lets you know that Williams' lost-dog lyrics have finally found a worthy home.