"The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams" is a great story before you even start playing the music. Williams, according to the story, used to write down his lyric ideas in notebooks. When he died, there were four notebooks of unreleased or unperformed songs. Over the years, the notebooks remained in the possession of Williams' publishers Acuff-Rose and few knew of them. One who did, however, was longtime Nashville executive Mary Martin, who shepherded this project to its eventual light-of-day. Longtime Williams fan Bob Dylan was the first musician approached, and he helped to organize the other artists' involvement.
It is a great pleasure to report that the final project is a wonderful tribute to the country music legend. The set contains contributions from Nashville insiders like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Patty Loveless to Americana icons such as Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams and Merle Haggard as well as folks from the rock/pop worlds (Jack White, Norah Jones and Sheryl Crow). Dylan, naturally, chips in a song as does his son Jakob. It's also fitting that Holly Williams, Hank's granddaughter, has a track too.
The contributors, in fact, are an expert selection of performers. They seamlessly take Williams' unreleased, sometimes skeletal material and create full-bodied tunes. It's nearly impossible to tell where Williams' words end and where the contemporary additions have been made. Some of the songs recall Williams' work. Jackson's lead-off track, You've Been Lonesome, Too brings to mind the classic I'm So Lonesome (beyond just the name similarities) and Patty Loveless' take on You're Through Fooling Me holds a Jambalaya spirit.
Other performers, however, cover a broader Americana musical territory. The craggy-voiced Bob Dylan injects a Tex-Mex rhythm to The Love That Faded that brings in a bit of Marty Robbins, while his son's take on Oh, Mama, Come Home is a laidback charmer. Lucinda Williams supplies her signature heart-wrenching vocals to the bluesy yet upbeat I'm So Happy That I Found You.
Heartache is more prevalent, however, in this set. Norah Jones asks an unfaithful lover How Many Times Have Your Broken My Heart and Holly Williams laments that the "joys of this life/they're passing me by" in Blue Is My Heart (on which she harmonizes with her father Hank Williams Jr.). Levon Helm laments a lost love in You'll Never Again Be Mine, while, in I Hope You Shed A Million Tears, Vince Gill sings and Rodney Crowell performs the spoken word section in this tune about a jilted husband. The religious reference in that track resurface in the divine love ode Angel Made and become more explicit on the gospel-centered, and Merle Haggard-sung, The Sermon On The Mount, which nods to Williams' Luke the Drifter persona.
The dozen tracks here are a delight to enjoy for Williams aficionados or just fans of country and Americana music. The performances are consistently strong (although Jack White's twangy vocals on You Know That I Know strain a bit trying to sound authentic), and the songs resonate with a timeless quality that reflects the project's unique collaborations here.