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The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Malcolm Doney

Epyptian Records


Johnny Ray, the US singer of the 1950s who prefigured rock 'n'roll, was known as the Nabob of Sob, for his extravagant, tear-stained performances. Yet this title, or Ray's other soubriquet, The Prince of Wails, could have equally applied to his contemporary, the country singer-songwriter Hank Williams. Williams' miserablist ballads, including 'Your Cheatin' Heart' and 'So Lonesome I Could Cry', earned him the reputation as one of the saddest songwriters of all time.
Williams had a difficult life, much of the hardship self-inflicted, and died at the age of 29 in the back of a Cadillac, full of booze and morphine. Yet in that short span - with his biscuits-and-gravy voice and his drawled recitations - he set the standard for mournful country music.

Bob Dylan was a big Hank Williams fan from very early on and so, when he was handed four exercise books containing unrecorded lyrics by the great man, lost since his death, he was pleased to play a part in helping his mentor live on. The original idea was that Dylan would write tunes to some of the songs, but the task was too daunting, and the job was divvied up among a series of other singer-songwriters, some country and some not.

The result is The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, which is only the second release on Dylan's own label imprint Egyptian records. It features post-mortem Hank Williams collaborations with Bob Dylan, Dylan's son Jakob, Jack White, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, and others.

The album remains true to the funereal tradition. The opening lines of the first track, 'You've Been Lonesome, Too', sung by Alan Jackson, set the tone: 'If your heart has known such pain, until for death it's cried, only for the Lord to refuse, then you've been by my side'.

Now I like a sad song. I've gone on record saying that sad music is infinitely superior to happy music - it is my creedal belief that Smokey Robinson's 'Tracks of my Tears' is the greatest pop song ever. But this record takes you down a dark spiral. Part of the reason could be that most of the featured artists don't so much doff their caps to Williams but tug their forelocks in abject servility.

There was a golden opportunity here for songwriters to reinterpret Williams for another decade, but what we have here, by and large, is an exercise in plagiarism.

There are one or two exceptions. Norah Jones's reworking of 'How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?' still contains Williams's country DNA, but adds her own genes to create the album's stand out track. Jakob Dylan outperforms his old man with a deceptively simple treatment of 'Oh, Mama, Come Home'. And Holly Williams, Hank's granddaughter, keeps the family tradition alive with the heart-aching 'Blue is My Heart', to which her father, Hank Williams Jr, adds a delightful growl on backing vocals.

The project has not been best served by a country standard, plinkety-plonk, plunkety-plunk, backing (performed by Dylan's touring band) with too much whiny pedal steel. These guys can really play, but it's all too reverential. Frankly, Hank Williams could write badly, as well as beautifully. There's a lot of doggerel on display here, and we have to remember this was a time when you could rhyme 'charms' with 'arms' (as happens on 'I Hope You Shed a Million Tears'), without a note of apology - and simply playing along with it doesn't improve matters.

The album throws up a couple of - presumably accidental - moments of hilarity. The one song which celebrates falling in love, 'I'm So Happy I Found You,' is sung as such a dirge by Lucinda Williams that it becomes  positively painful. And Merle Haggard's sentimental re-telling of the musical tract 'The Sermon on the Mount', complete with oily recitation, is a laugh a minute. I greatly enjoyed being told gravely: 'So take the straight and narrow, and do good things that count. Make up your mind to live by the Sermon on the Mount'. Yee ha!

Ultimately, this is a novelty record for Hank Williams fans. It's unlikely to make Hank turn in his grave, which is a shame. Nobody here has done much to burnish Williams's work or resurrect it. Graveside revisitations like this ought to provide the opportunity for a bolder, more playful 'Roll over Beethoven' moment. But it doesn't. Sad, really.

Malcolm Doney