Lonesome Hank’s Friends

By BARRY MAZOR

You know you’re in Hank Williams territory. There’s a soul wilted “like a rose that never feels the dew,” a “wasted” love with endless costs, a heart that’s “blue as the sky” and, scattered throughout the album, more than anyone’s fair share of lonesome. But no one had heard the words in “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” sung until 12 writer-performers took a dozen of his rich but unrecorded lyrics and brought them to life.

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A decade in the making, “The Lost Notebooks” comes out this week on Bob Dylan’s Egyptian Records imprint at Sony/Columbia, in cooperation with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMF Records. The songs were culled from four notebooks left behind when Williams died, on New Year’s morning, 1953, at age 29. They arrived shortly thereafter at music publisher Acuff-Rose, where catalog specialist Peggy Lamb kept the notebooks safe, despite corporate mergers and moves, and typed up Hank’s sometimes hard-to-read, handwritten lyrics for copyright.

As originally conceived by Sony Publishing and A&R executive Mary Martin—Mr. Dylan’s longtime friend who’d introduced him to The Band—the songs would have been completed and performed entirely by Mr. Dylan, a lifelong Williams admirer. But about eight years ago, Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams recalled recently, Mr. Dylan told her that it was “kind of overwhelming” for him to take it all on and was looking for other artists to join in. Eventually, Ms. Williams would be one of the 12 performing writers who have cuts on the new release, including Mr. Dylan and his son Jakob, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Nora Jones, Jack White and Lucinda Williams.

Ms. Martin explained in a recent interview at her Nashville home how the artists and lyrics came together: “Dylan was No. 1, and No. 2 was Alan Jackson. And then everything else was up for discussion! The artists approached were all songwriters; that, to me, was really important. And each artist received 25 lyrics, but not the ones already chosen, so there would be no kerfufflement. Peggy Lamb and I spent a wad of time writing proper letters to each artist saying what they could and couldn’t do, with the key phrase: ‘We understand the creative muse. So don’t be curtailed by any rules or boundaries.’”

That freedom led some of the songwriters to emulate William’s musical style; others to go in more explicitly contemporary directions. But despite the broad range of moods in which Williams wrote and sang—all represented in the notebooks—the majority of the artists were drawn toward his lyrics that expressed being alone and desperately lonesome.

Yes, there’s an up-tempo number from Patty Loveless, a religious ballad from Mr. Haggard, and a sly, catchy “peeved with my woman” song from Mr. White. But material in the “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” mode proved the main attraction.

Mr. Jackson’s love of this territory was evident in his Hank-haunted 1990 country hit “Midnight in Montgomery,” and his affecting traditionalist turn on the lyric “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” starts off the new collection. He noted in a separate interview: “As far as Hank Williams goes, I guess for a lot of people his cheatin’, hurtin’, forsaken songs are the ones that stand out; I gravitate towards the sad, more emotional songs as a writer, myself. . . . I guess it’s easier to make pain sound honest than happy. I just took this lyric and sat down one day and started fiddling around with it, and that melody jumped out.”

Holly Williams chose perhaps the most desolate lyrics, adapted and extended for the record. “It was wild to have the opportunity,” she said. “And also very scary. Obviously, because I’m the granddaughter, I wanted to do a good job. Still, I got the lyrics in an afternoon, and by that evening I’d decided on ‘Blue Is My Heart.’ . . . It does remind me that journalists say of my own songs, ‘These songs are heavy.’ I am going to turn towards a song like that, even though in my own life I’m so outgoing, loud and rambunctious. Sitting down at the piano at night, something in me wants to play the slow heartbreaking songs.” (Ms. Williams’s father, Hank Williams Jr., sings harmony on the track.)

All involved in the project second Ms. Martin’s hope that “it adds to and honors Hank Williams’s legacy in a unique way, and makes an impression both with people who already know his worthiness—and others.” Mr. Jackson adds: “Hank Williams has always been just such a big part of what real country music is—and a poet. He showed how simply you can write; people still need to learn that from him. And he’s a reason I moved to Nashville.”

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