BOB DYLAN has long claimed Hank Williams as an influence and an inspiration. In his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles Volume One,” Mr. Dylan recounted his discovery of that country giant’s music in the 1950s. “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.”
“Intuitively I knew, though, that his voice would never drop out of sight or fade away,” he continued.
With a new project titled “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” Mr. Dylan is doing his part to keep the work of one of America’s greatest songwriters — the author of classics like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold Cold Heart,” and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” — in the spotlight. The album collects the lyrics for a dozen unrecorded songs by Williams, set to melodies and recorded by an array of rock and country stars, including Jack White, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crow. “The Lost Notebooks” is being released on Oct. 4 on Mr. Dylan’s imprint, Egyptian Records, in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Columbia Records. (The only previous release on Egyptian was a 1997 group tribute to the country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.)
Artists who participated in the album, which has been in the works for almost a decade, expressed their sense of honor at being asked to complete the work of such a monumental musician. “There’s a lot of magic still left in these songs,” said Alan Jackson, who opens the album with “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too.” Ms. Jones, who sings the bluesy, melancholy “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” said she found the idea behind the project “really daunting,” but that “the people who were putting it together were doing it with respect and love and creativity, and I had trust in that.”
Lucinda Williams — whose poet father met Hank Williams the month before the singer died and Ms. Williams was born — felt such an emotional connection to her selection, “I’m So Happy I Found You,” that she sang it immediately before she and her husband exchanged vows at their onstage wedding in 2009. The seeds of the project were planted in 2002 when the all-star Hank Williams tribute album “Timeless” (also with Mr. Dylan, Ms. Williams and Ms. Crow) won the Grammy for country album of the year. One of that record’s executive producers, the veteran manager and A&R executive Mary Martin, was approached by Peggy Lamb, the Hank Williams authority at Williams’s publishing company, Acuff-Rose. Ms. Lamb told her about the cardboard box containing four notebooks and scattered scraps of paper full of Williams’s unrecorded lyrics (66 songs in all) that was locked in a vault in her office. Williams’s family had passed the material to Acuff-Rose soon after the singer died, but its existence wasn’t widely known until a few of the pages were reprinted in the book “Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway,”
“Nashville is a small community,” said Ms. Martin, who worked with Mr. Dylan’s legendary manager Albert Grossman and first introduced Mr. Dylan to the members of the Band. “If three of us have a passion, we’re bound to end up in a bar together.”
Initially Ms. Lamb’s idea was to ask one artist to record a full album based on the manuscripts. Ms. Martin approached Mr. Dylan, sending him 27 of them; he weighed the idea for “about a year and a half,” she said, before replying that “the task is too mighty.” He chose one song, “The Love That Faded,” for himself — setting lines like “Vows that we made turned into lies/My life is empty, my lonely heart cries” to a chugging waltz with a pedal-steel guitar refrain — and they started coming up with a roster of potential contributors and sending them lyrics to consider; Mr. Jackson was the first artist asked.
Ms. Martin said that some of the choices — Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young — opted not to participate and laughed as she described Mr. Dylan’s wondering why they weren’t involving Luciano Pavarotti.
The finest of the “Lost Notebooks” lyrics offer the economy and precision that characterized Williams’s work. Given the range of styles in which Mr. Williams wrote, from the spiritual revelation of “I Saw the Light” to the physical joy in “Jambalaya (on the Bayou),” the selections of each artist can be telling. Though there were a number of gospel songs among the lyrics, only Mr. Haggard chose a religious theme, the album’s closer, “The Sermon on the Mount.” The sly humor of “You Know That I Know” feels like familiar territory for Mr. White. The tradition-minded country singers Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell utilize a recited section, like those on the records Williams made as the street preacher character Luke the Drifter, in “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears” (and called on Williams’s pedal steel player, Don Helms, for what turned out to be his final recording session; he died in 2008).
Ms. Crow said she didn’t feel intimidated by the idea of finishing a master’s work. “It’s meant to be a project honoring him and his legacy,” she said. “It’s not really a contest, so I didn’t feel there would be any judgment.”Back to Top