The singer-songwriter’s long-in-the-works tribute to Hank Williams nears release, with kindred spirits like Holly Williams, Merle Haggard and Jack White tapping into the country legend’s unreleased archive.
At a time when country was still widely labeled “hillbilly music,” Hank Williams brought a new level of haunting personal storytelling through disarming poetic lyrics using deceptively simple language. The beauty and power he brought to songs now considered country classics — “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You” among many, many others — continue to resonate today.
He forged fans in all areas of pop music. Columbia Records A&R man Mitch Miller famously persuaded Tony Bennett to record “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1951, introducing Williams’ music to audiences across the country who never would have listened to the Grand Ole Opry’s radio broadcasts.
Williams’ songwriting also had a powerful influence on younger folk and rock artists including Dylan — perhaps second only to Dylan’s primary songwriting hero, Woody Guthrie, the subject of a similar restoration project a little more than a decade ago by Wilco and Billy Bragg. “The sound of Hank Williams’s voice went through me like an electric rod,” Dylan wrote in “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville inducted only three figures when it opened in 1961: country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, songwriter-publisher Fred Rose and Williams, of whom the institution declared: “His is the standard by which success is measured in country music on every level, even self-destruction.”
He was born in rural Alabama with a deformity, spina bifida occulta, that caused him intense pain throughout his life. He turned to self-medication with alcohol for relief, the result being his erratic behavior as a performer, as a husband and father and as a businessman.
Alcoholism was the primary cause of his death, and despite his burgeoning stack of masterfully written hits, his unreliability made it harder for him to earn a living. He was banned from the Grand Ole Opry for “drunkenness.” He wrote and recorded prolifically during the six years from when he first stepped into a recording studio until he died, leaving more than 200 recordings behind.
Falling into place
After Dylan first approached Holly Williams about the lost notebooks material nearly a decade ago, it was years before she heard anything more. A few years later, A&R executive Martin brought the subject up again. Holly went through the songs and song fragments and honed in on “Blue Is My Heart,” for which her grandfather had written just eight lines. She wrote two more and added a bridge. “My dad ended up singing on it with me,” she said. “It was great to have him involved. It really just fell together.”
Vince Gill played with the father-daughter team on their track, in addition to the one he finished writing with Rodney Crowell, “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears”:
I gave my heart and soul to you
You done me wrong for years
I hope someday you suffer, too
And shed a million tears
Crowell added spoken-word verses akin to what Williams did on recordings under the name of his alter ego, Luke the Drifter. “We wanted to do it in the Luke the Drifter period,” Gill said, “where Rodney spoke the lyrics in the verses, and I sang the choruses. It’s fun to listen to. I’ve heard a few of the other things [from the ‘Lost Notebooks’ tracks] and I’m really proud of this because it does hark back to those days.” Gill calls it one of the most memorable recording sessions of his career because it was the final studio appearance by Williams’ original steel guitarist, Don Helms, before he died two months later.
Lucinda Williams chose “I’m So Happy I Found You” for her turn at bat. She composed an anguished melody in the tradition of Buck Owens’ “Together Again,” marrying a lyric describing joy born of despair to one of the saddest melodies imaginable. “I just got lucky,” Williams said. “I know some people only had six lines to work with. All I had to do was come up with a melody.”
“I knew the album had to end with that one,” Martin said. “There’s enough material left to do another album. We’ll see how this one does.”