9:54am

Wed October 12, 2011
Country

Breathing New Life Into Hank Williams' Lyrics

It's hard not to feel ambivalent about The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Yes, it does give us an opportunity to hear previously unreleased lyrics by one of the greatest songwriters country music has produced. But Williams didn't write the music that accompanies his words, and as sincere as these performers are, none of the words are framed the way Williams would have, had he completed the songwriting process. Would Hank, for example, have set "The Love That Faded" to a waltz beat, as Bob Dylan has done with it?

I like Dylan's performance, the way I like so many of his latter-day, gargling-with-Drano vocal turns. Dylan doesn't try to capture the sound of Hank Williams, and that's a good strategy. But so is Alan Jackson's, in "You've Been Lonesome Too," and if anything, Jackson sounds like an uncannily well-rested, well-preserved version of Hank Williams himself.

One of the greatest gifts of this project is to hear Williams at his most heartless, bitter and vengeful. The legend spent much of his career balancing songs of heartache with songs of faith. But I was thrilled to hear the dark Hank Williams presented by Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell in their stark version of a great, ruthless lyric, "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears."

Instead of heartache, heartlessness — dismissals don't get much more decisive than that. Dylan was the first artist contacted to interpret this material, and the album has been released on his Egyptian Records imprint for Columbia Records. The stone-cold words in "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears" can't help but remind me of the harsh Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone" or something from Blood on the Tracks. Similarly, Patty Loveless takes another face-slap lyric, "You're Through Fooling Me," and brings it to full crimson passion and beauty.

It's interesting to see the words of one song as printed on the CD jacket of The Lost Notebooks, and to listen to where the line-breaks occur in the singing of the others. Williams usually wrote here in quatrains, each verse a direct ABAB rhyme scheme. Keeping the structure simple allowed him to speak directly yet artfully. There's a flaw in this collection, however. Too frequently, the invited stars err on the side of caution, applying pallid, even rudimentary melodies to the lyrics, resulting in the washed-out backgrounds of songs covered by, for example, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams and Jakob Dylan. Then there's Jack White's labored impersonation of the wrong Hank — he sounds more like Hank Williams III, the wobbliest member of the Williams family to trade on the great man's name.

Overall, however, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is catnip for anyone familiar with Williams' greatest hits. A couple of these songs could have been crafted by the man himself into important additions to his canon. As it stands, we have these reverent, and sometimes inspired, interpretations of words that ring with graceful candor.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: A new album, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," finds a number of major country and rock musicians setting to music lyrics that Hank Williams left behind in four notebooks when he died in 1953. Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Jack White and Norah Jones are among the artists who have taken part in this unusual project. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEART")

NORAH JONES: (Singing) Time after time you've proven untrue, leaving me home to cry over you. Each time you come back, you say I'm your sweetheart, but how many times dear, have you broken my heart? Night after night...

KEN TUCKER: One must feel ambivalent about this album, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams." Yes, it does give us an opportunity to hear some previously unreleased lyrics by one of the greatest songwriters country music has produced. But Williams didn't write the music that accompanies his words, and as sincere as these performers are, none of the words are framed the way Williams would have, had he completed the songwriting process. Would Hank, for example, have set "The Love That Faded" to a waltz beat, as Bob Dylan has done with it?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOVE THAT FADED")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) A love that faded left me lonely, dear. Days ever happy turned into lonely years. And as every May turn in July, my life is empty, lonely, I cry.

TUCKER: I like Dylan's performance, in the way that I like so many of Dylan's latter-day, gargling-with-Drano vocal turns. Dylan doesn't try to capture the sound of Hank Williams, and that's a good strategy. But so is Alan Jackson's, on "You've Been Lonesome Too," and if anything, Jackson sounds like an uncannily well-rested, well-preserved version of Hank himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE BEEN LONESOME TOO")

ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) If your heart has known such pain, until her death it's pride. Only to have the Lord with you and you've been near my side. If in your heart somehow you know you fail what 'er you do, then you have walked the road of pain, yes, you've been lonesome too. If you...

TUCKER: One of the greatest gifts of this project is to hear Williams at his most heartless, bitter and vengeful. Hank spent much of his career balancing songs of heartache with spiritual songs of faith. But I was thrilled to hear the dark Hank Williams as presented by Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell in their stark version of a great, ruthless lyric, "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HOPE YOU SHED A MILLION TEARS")

VINCE GILL AND RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) 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. Now I can see you clear as day, there on our wedding night. The warm glow of your heart so gay and your eyes blue, shinning bright. Your lips were like a rose red wine, the stars along came near. My one and only Valentine, my lily of the field.

TUCKER: Instead of heartache, heartlessness. Dismissals don't get much more decisive than that. Dylan was the first artist contacted to interpret this material, and the album has been released on his Egyptian Records imprint for Columbia Records. "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears'" stone-cold words can't help but remind me of the harsh Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone" or something from "Blood on the Tracks." Similarly, Patty Loveless takes another face-slap lyric, "You're Through Fooling Me," and brings it to full crimson passion and beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE THROUGH FOOLING ME")

PATTY LOVELESS: (Singing) I know someday I'll forget you, until that day I'll be so good. Go on and have your fun. Baby, this race is won. You ain't the kind that could be true. You like cheatin', all that you do. You're through fooling me, 'cause I'm through fooling with you. Oh, love is true...

TUCKER: It's interesting to see the lyrics of one song as printed on the CD jacket of "The Lost Notebooks," and to listen to where the line breaks occur in the singing of the others. Williams usually wrote here in quatrains, each verse a very direct ABAB rhyme scheme. Keeping the structure simple allowed him to speak directly, yet artfully. There's a flaw in this collection, however. Too frequently, the invited stars err on the side of caution, applying rather pallid, even rudimentary melodies to the lyrics, resulting in the washed-out backgrounds of songs covered by, for example, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams and Jakob Dylan. Then there's Jack White's labored impersonation of the wrong Hank - he sounds more like Hank Williams III, the wobbliest member of the Williams family to trade on the great man's name.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW THAT I KNOW")

JACK WHITE: (Singing) Now you know that I'm know that you is no good. And you wouldn't tell the truth, even if you could. Lying is a habit you practice wherever you go. So you may fool the rest of the world but you know that I know.

TUCKER: Overall, however, the "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams" is catnip for anyone who is familiar with Hank Williams' greatest hits. A couple of these songs could have been crafted by the man himself into important additions to his canon. As it stands, we have these reverent, and sometimes inspired, interpretations of words that ring with graceful candor.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEART")

JONES: (Singing) You took my world and tore it apart. Oh, how many times have you broken my heart? You took my world, tore it apart. How many times have you broken my heart? How many times have you broken my heart?

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Russell Banks' new novel about a homeless sex offender. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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