Extending the Mermaid Avenue treatment to Hank Williams, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams takes unused lyrics by the late, great country crooner and sets them to tunes by an all-star cast of current country and rock singers. Unlike Wilco and Billy Bragg, who adapted Woody Guthrie’s words to fit a contemporary Americana context, the artists here sing the lyrics to traditional, Williams-esque melodies. In effect the album feels less like a past-present collaboration and more like a covers record. But it does remind us of the power of Williams’ genius, and the days before country music buried itself in overproduced glitz and right-wing chest thumping, back when the genre concerned itself with stirringly simple ballads about whiskey, heart break, and God.
Bob Dylan is the curator of the collection, and maybe because of that, the album resembles the sepia-toned worlds of his recent efforts. The performances here are wistful, assured, and wry, with none of the passengers doing anything much to rock the boat. In such an open environment the vocals take on added importance. Fortunately, everyone here besides Dylan can really sing. There’s the buttery croon of Alan Jackson, Norah Jones’s whispery warble, Jack White’s bristling vibrato, Levon Helm’s smoked-out howl. Even Jakob Dylan acquits himself well, as does Hank’s son and recent Fox News guest wing-nut Hank Williams, Jr.
Probably the best moment here is the one that bucks the trend. “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears” is the album’s only true duet, and it features boomer-country greats Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell. After Gill takes the embittered chorus for a buoyant ride, Rodney Crowell steps into speak the verses with the solemn intonations of a country prophet. It’s poetry in motion, and makes you want to go out and grab the audiobook version of Crowell’s well-regarded memoir, if you haven’t read it already. “Our love was like a sacred scroll you ne’er did learn to read,” Crowell sneers, as the hop-a-long accompaniment shuffles by, “I gave to you my heart and soul, and you left it there to bleed.”
As much as the artists here may be indebted to Williams, the truth seems inarguable: there is little in our contemporary environment that matches the power of Williams’ oeuvre or that even deserves to be its legatee. The Lost Notebooks proves that Williams’ vision was too stark, too faithful, too pure to make much headway in our ironic, cluttered era. As such this tribute has a back-to-the-future quality, a sad wave at a sensibility that has slipped out of our reach: lost, indeed.