The Ghostwriter

by Andrew Romano

On New Years Day in 1953, Hank Williams, the man who invented modern country music, died of an overdose in the backseat of his Cadillac at age 29. A few days later, his mama searched his house and made a secret discovery that—60 years later, with a little help from Bob Dylan, Jack White, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, and Lucinda Williams—would allow old Hank’s ghost to rise from the grave.

Six years ago, a pair of country-music archivists named Stephen Shutts and Robert Reynolds received a cryptic phone call from a woman in suburban Nashville. She had seen their ad in a local newspaper, soliciting memorabilia, and now she had something she wanted them to see: a creased brown notebook full of handwritten song lyrics with dates from the late 1940s. The woman said the journal once belonged to Roy Orbison, but Shutts and Reynolds, who could claim some expertise in these matters, having already managed to acquire a pair of Elvis Presley’s underpants, among other relics, for their travelling Honky Tonk Hall of Fame, knew that Orbison didn’t start writing songs until a few years later, when Dwight Eisenhower was president. They suspected that someone else had owned the notebook. After three visits to the woman’s house, Shutts paid $1,500 to add it, and several other items, to their collection.

At first, Shutts and Reynolds weren’t sure whose hand had written “Original Songs” in block letters across the cover of the brown journal, or who had marked its marginal ruled pages with lines like “the days that were happy turned into lonely years.” But then they happened upon a coffee-table book called Snapshots from the Lost Highway, which had been published in 2001. It was filled with photos and documents from the life of Hank Williams, one of the finest American songwriters of the 20th century. And there, in full color, was a photograph of the notebook they had just bought. Reynolds says he gasped when he saw it.

The collectors wouldn’t get to enjoy their new acquisition for long. In September 2006, someone at Sony/ATV, the publishing company in charge of Hank’s catalog, read an interview with Reynolds in the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’d love to see [Bob] Dylan… Alan Jackson… Holly [Williams] all get an opportunity to wrap their mind in the tradition,” Reynolds had told the paper. “What could possibly feel better than to sit there with your guitar, this notebook, and let the muse find you?” Soon, Shutts was under arrest for felony theft. The woman who sold him the relic, a former Sony/ATV janitor, was being booked as well; she said she had rescued it from a pile of trash. (The charges were later dropped.) And the notebook itself, after a brief frolic in the wider world, was locked up, yet again, in Sony’s secret vault.

Eighteen months later, Norah Jones gave a midnight performance at The Living Room, the hushed songwriter’s haven on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where she’d launched her career. After breezing through her first three or four numbers, Jones paused to introduce a new composition. She didn’t mention its name, but she did say how she wrote it: by adding music to a newly-discovered Hank Williams lyric. Smiling, Jones added that she “was probably not supposed to play this.”

The Jones-Williams collaboration went over well; the next day, a friend of mine who attended the show told me the song was “gorgeous.” I quickly discovered that Jones wasn’t the only contemporary artist who’d gotten the chance to co-write with Hank. The previous winter, a bassist named Dominic Suchyta told Paste Magazine about a recent Nashville session with his old friend Jack White. The song they had recorded, Suchyta said, was “a Hank Williams lyric sheet that Jack put to music and edited a bit.”

“Dylan,” he went on, “had contacted [Jack] to see if he’d like to finish some of these tunes.”

Dylan. As in Bob Dylan. I knew that as a kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan would tune into distant Opry transmissions and comb the local record shop for Hank Williams 78s—his “first influence,” he would later say, and the reason he “started writing songs.” What I didn’t know, and what Suchyta had first revealed, was that Dylan had “acquired” a bunch of “‘lost’ Hank Williams songs”—songs that Dylan had begun discreetly asking artists such as White and Jones to reanimate. The project sounded similar to Mermaid Avenue, the 1998 album of unheard Guthrie lyrics set to music and performed by Billy Bragg and Wilco, only better. Bragg and Wilco were talented, but they weren’t Bob Dylan. And Guthrie was no match for the genius who had written “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

For most of the previous six decades, Hank Williams’s legacy had been set in stone. There was the battered, lifeless body he left behind, and the pitiful tale of how it came to be that way. And then there was his body of work: little more than 100 songs in all, performed live in the studio or on the radio, with sparse, mostly acoustic accompaniment, and carried through the decades, from vinyl to plastic to digital bits, by the haunting sound of his singular voice. In 1923, Williams was born, too restless for school and too sickly for manual labor, to an absentee father and a predatory mother on a bleak patch of pineland in Mt. Olive, Alabama. Thirty years later, he’d somehow managed to transform himself, as his hometown newspaper once put it, into “the Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

But now it was clear that there was more to Hank’s legacy than the hundred songs he had committed to wax. Over the next few months, I would learn that the brown notebook Shutts and Reynolds had purchased in the summer of 2006 was not the only one of its kind; there were three more just like it. Together, these four private scratch pads, which had been buried, stolen, bruised, and battled over in the six decades since Williams’s death, represented one of the headier what-ifs in pop history: a secret stash of 66 unrecorded songs by the man who had invented modern country music.

Dylan & Co., it also turned out, had assembled quite a team for their subterranean project: White and Jones, as well Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, and Levon Helm, among others. By mid-2009, the album was mostly finished, but business squabbles and scheduling conflicts were keeping it mired in record-industry limbo. Not even the artists themselves were able to hear it. But this week The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams will finally be unveiled. The question now is what this strange experiment in musical creation will reveal about the magic that separates the hundreds of thousands of songs we forget from the rare ones, like so many of Hank’s, that we can’t seem to shake.

Hiram King “Hank” Williams lived fast and died young, but he skipped the part about leaving behind a beautiful corpse. It was December 30, 1952 when the singer set out from his mother’s boardinghouse in Montgomery, Alabama, where he’d been bunking for the past few months with his new bride, Billie Jean, and began the long drive to Charleston, West Virginia and Canton, Ohio for a pair of New Year’s shows. They were the only commitments left on his schedule. The haunted figure slumped in the back seat of the 1952 powder-blue Cadillac convertible coupe that morning was still dressed like the honky-tonk superstar who’d scorched the Grand Ole Opry stage only a year earlier: white felt hat, white cowboy boots, blue serge suit, navy blue overcoat. But now the clothing looked like a costume.

Williams was 30 pounds overweight. His hair was falling out. He’d always been a drunk, of course, but he’d recently started supplementing his standard liquid diet with morphine, Dexedrine, and chloral hydrate, which his doctor, a self-described “pathological, constitutional liar” who’d spent time in San Quentin for armed robbery, had prescribed to ease the chronic back pain that became unbearable after Williams fell five feet down a gully hunting groundhogs in late 1951. But his condition hadn’t improved. His arms were freckled with track marks. His veins had mostly collapsed. Around Thanksgiving, he’d suffered a minor heart attack while visiting his sister Irene in Florida, and a few days later he stopped breathing on the way to a gig. Irene was convinced she’d never see him again.

Williams seemed to share his sister’s premonition. “Ol’ Hank needs to straighten up some things with the Man,” he told Billie Jean before leaving for Charleston. “Every time I close my eyes, I see Jesus coming down the road.” The next morning, he climbed into the Cadillac with his driver, Charles Carr, an 18-year-old freshman at Auburn University, and they were off.

Williams intake on the trip wasn’t unusual, for him: a few beers at a nearby hotel; a morphine shot from a local physician; a six-pack of Falstaff in the back seat; a handful of chloral hydrate tablets; a bottle of bonded bourbon. But at a hotel in Knoxville, he fell to the floor, convulsing and hiccupping violently. A doctor was summoned. He administered two more shots of morphine and declared the singer fit for travel. A pair of porters put him in a wheelchair, bundled him into the back seat, and covered him with a blanket and an overcoat. By the time Carr pulled over at 5:30 a.m. in Oak Hill, West Virginia, his passenger hadn’t spoken for hours. The driver reached back and felt Williams’s hand. It was stiff. The greatest artist ever to emerge from Nashville was pronounced dead at 7:00 am on the first day of 1953, at the advanced age of 29.

A few hours later, as reporters were conducting interviews, cops were gathering evidence, and family, friends, and lawyers were flooding in from across the South, the crew at N&W Motors in Oak Hill began cleaning out Hank’s Cadillac. Picking through a pile of empty beer cans, a worker spotted a crumpled piece of paper on the floor of the back seat. It was stained by a boot print and most likely scrawled on the drive:

We met, and lived
And dear we loved
Then came that fatal day
The love that felt so dear fades fast away
Tonight we both are all alone
And here’s all that I can say
I love you still and always will
But that’s the price we have to pay

Carr knew that Williams’s mother, Lilly, could be a handful. But even he was shocked by her first response when he called with the tragic news: “Don’t let anything happen to that car!” Then she hung up the phone. Within hours, Lilly was scrambling around Oak Hill, snatching up Hank’s possessions, including the lyric from the Cadillac. She knew it wouldn’t be the last one she’d find. Williams had been scribbling in notebooks with his little pencil stubs for as long as Lilly could remember, and he was always returning home with a billfold of half-completed songs and abandoned ideas under his arm. Her goal was to keep these nuggets of gold out of the hands of her despised daughter-in-law, who wasn’t scheduled to arrive in West Virginia until the following day.

Lilly didn’t discover any other treasures in Oak Hill. But Montgomery was more bountiful. On the morning of Hank’s funeral, Lilly waited until Billie Jean slipped into the bathroom to apply her makeup, then crept into her son’s quarters and started to snoop around. There, stuffed inside a shoebox—or a beat-up leather briefcase, depending on whose memory you trust—Lilly found what she’d been looking for: four bent, schoolboyish notebooks filled with handwritten lyrics.

Legend has it that Billie Jean, who’d been overheard earlier that day accusing “the old gray-haired bitch” of “trying to steal all of Hank’s stuff from me,” returned to her room just as Lilly was claiming her prize, and the two kicked, clawed, and yanked at each other’s hair as they brawled over the notebooks. Assuming the story is true, Billie Jean was no match for her more experienced rival. Before the funeral, a triumphant Lilly handed Hank’s papers to his promoter, who in turn passed them to Fred Rose, co-founder of the legendary music publishing firm Acuff-Rose. When Rose returned to Nashville the next day, he locked the notebooks in a safe. Some of the lyrics were famous. Others were yet to be published or performed. As for the melodies, Williams had never figured out how to write them down, meaning they were gone forever, if they’d ever existed in the first place.

For most of the next 50 years, the notebooks drifted through Nashville like ghosts: unseen, unnoticed, unremembered. In 1969, when the young Hank Williams, Jr. was still making a living impersonating his father—Audrey Mae Sheppard, Hank, Sr.’s first wife, even had matching suits made—he’d raided the Acuff-Rose archives and knocked out an album of his own (lousy) collaborations; a few years later, Mickey Newbury, an Acuff-Rose artist, chose one or two lyrics to record. Neither made much of an impact. By the end of the century, the notebooks were so obscure that not even Holly Williams, Hank’s granddaughter and a gifted singer-songwriter in her own right, was aware they existed. But on May 16, 2003 Williams slipped backstage after a Bob Dylan show in Birmingham, Ala.—and Dylan handed her some typewritten pages. “He didn’t really say anything, so I started reading the lyrics,” Williams told me recently. “And I could just tell instantly they were Hank’s.”

Dylan had already spent several months wrestling with Williams’s unfinished songs. In late 2002, Peggy Lamb, an longtime executive at Acuff-Rose, and Mary Martin, the industry legend responsible for introducing Dylan to The Band and launching the recording careers of Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, had come to Sony/ATV on the recommendation of a fellow Hank fanatic who’d stumbled upon the notebooks while researching the Snapshots from the Lost Highway book. As Martin and Lamb paged through Williams’s private journals, they saw that some of the lyrics had dates. Many did not. Some were written in a dutiful script, as if to impress the grayhairs at Acuff-Rose. Others looked like hieroglyphics. To Martin, this trove of lost verses and choruses—words scribbled in a Cadillac after one too many whiskeys, or in a dank dressing room somewhere, after yet another a row with Audrey—”seemed a little bit like folk art.” Her first call was to an old friend: Bob Dylan. The idea was that he would choose 12 lyrics, add music, and record the results for a solo album. Dylan said he was interested.

But by the time the rock icon bumped into Holly Williams backstage in Birmingham, he was beginning to have second thoughts. “Bob mentioned something about maybe getting other people to put music to Hank’s lyrics,” Williams told me. “And I was like, ‘You should write the music yourself!’ But he just shook his head and said he didn’t want the responsibility.'”

Dylan’s apprehension might seem strange at first, because most Hank Williams songs don’t sound particularly difficult to simulate. But that’s an illusion: the apparent simplicity of Williams’s work—its near-primitive quality—is actually a product of relentless refinement. “Hank,” says Dave Hickey, the noted art critic and former Nashville songwriter, “was the fucking best. That’s the bottom line.”
Williams had a remarkable voice, and he wrote, or borrowed, precisely the right kinds of melodies: modest enough to be memorable and dynamic enough to convey whatever emotions his words described. But the most revolutionary thing about his songs was the lyrics. Unlike his predecessors, Williams didn’t sing about emotions in the abstract; he revealed his own feelings, in real time, in song. “Somehow, Hank never succumbed to the oppressive reign of inarticulateness that Southern men have forced upon them,” Hickey says. “And so his songs meant a great deal to a great many inarticulate people. He was expressing the inner needs of a very hostile and repressed audience.” These days, every singer-songwriter is “confessional.” Williams was the first.

He was also the first country writer as careful and crafty with language as a Broadway pro, which is why his verses, as emotional as they are, read more like proverbs than diary entries. Some critics have speculated that Fred Rose, a former Tin Pan Alley songsmith, was responsible for the burnished gleam that Hank’s best lyrics give off. But while Rose encouraged Williams to organize and commercialize his scribblings—he taught his protege to “write bridges rather than simply string verses together” to “dispense with archaic folk forms like ‘ne’er’ and ‘oe’er'” in favor of “every day speech,” according to Colin Escott’s definitive biography, Hank Williams—he was as surprised as anyone by Williams’s sudden polish. “Don’t get the idea that I made the guy or wrote his songs for him,” Rose said after Williams’s death. “He made himself.”

How Williams “made himself,” lyrics-wise, is still something of a mystery. His earliest submissions to Acuff-Rose were undistinguished, and his first big hit, “Lovesick Blues,” was a cover. But starting with an MGM recording session in Cincinnati on August 30, 1949—the session that yielded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” among others—Williams “came closer to hitting a home run every time at bat than anyone in popular music before or since,” as Escott (correctly) puts it.

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