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Hunting for a Good Tune: The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Driftwood’s been nominated for a Mobbie again! You can vote for us once a day right here. Remember, you don’t have to be in Baltimore to vote.

Various Artists
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams
[Egyptian/CMF/Columbia (2011)]

Even if musicians have been rambling and partying hard for millennia, Hank Williams‘s hard living and death on the cusp of rock and roll’s birth has often earned him the dubious dubbing as the first rock star. Jazz artists covered his country songs; pop singers and folk artists cover him every night in bars. Oh, and he’s pretty important to the massive country music scene based in the town where he drugged and drank himself into 20th-century music mythology. It’s difficult to imagine the music of the last 70 years without his influence.

A recent collection, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Willaims, is 12 Hank Williams tunes that have never been recorded—by nobody, not nohow. This alone is celebratory news for Hank Williams fans. That Columbia brought together a broad range of artists to bring them to life in ways that pay tribute to the writer without the artists paroting Williams is much better news for listeners less steeped in the country canon.

Alan Jackson sings “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too,” and his smooth vocal is a reminder that cosmopolitan country was never completely out of step with the music of the hills. Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, and Merle Haggard are also on hand to represent Nashville country. Bob Dylan weighs in with “The Love That Faded,” and though Dylan’s vocals these days can never get anywhere near “high,” he can certainly hit “lonesome.” There’s always been a particular meanness in some of Dylan’s narrators that probably owed a debt to Williams. His son Jacob also makes an appearance, but “Oh Mama, Come Home” carries far less gravity than the elder’s performance. Norah Jones (doing “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?”), who has often covered “Cold Cold Heart,” represents the jazz world here. Her band’s always had a very slight country edge, so it’s almost a shame there isn’t another more traditional jazz singer on the disc to show just how far from the source genre Willaims’s lyrics and music can be taken. Not all the tracks are winners, though: Lucinda Williams turns in a take with an uninspired tune and simply strummed guitar chords.

The most authentic—and as it happens, best—track on the album is Jack White’s “You Know That I Love You.” White’s performance is notable in many ways, but the main one is that he’s the one artist who comes across as truly giving it everything he’s got. He’s a little pitchy at the beginning, and though the melody is clear, the phrasing slides around, but in the end, that’s part of the charm of this track. It’s not a polished performance, and Hank Willaims was full of rough edges.

Jack’s Pick: Jack White’s “You Know That I Love You” is the standout for best channeling the spirit of Hank Williams.

—Jack Hunter

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