Singer and songwriter Holly Williams, the granddaughter of country music giant Hank Williams, knew something big was up when Bob Dylan approached her at a gig several years ago and handed her a handful of song lyrics he wanted her to peruse.
“He didn’t say anything,” Williams recalled recently, “but I could immediately tell from the simple English and the cut-to-your-heart, lonesome lyrics. He said, ‘These are some [Hank Williams] lyrics that were found, and they’ve asked me maybe to do a whole album, or I may have other artists do them.’”
That was the beginning of her involvement in “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams,” a long-gestating project that’s finally seeing the light of day on Tuesday. Dylan, Holly Williams, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Jack White, Alan Jackson and half a dozen other musicians have taken part in a musical archaeology dig to complete and record songs left unfinished by Williams when he died at age 29 in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Year’s Day in 1953, on his way to shows in North Carolina and Ohio.
The titles alone are enough to start Williams’ aficionados salivating: “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears,” “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” “The Love That Faded” and “The Sermon on the Mount,” to cite just four.
Williams carried notebooks with him in a brown leather briefcase during his time on the road, jotting down thoughts, lines and verses of lyrics on their pages, as well as on the backs of envelopes, napkins or whatever else was available.
After he died, the stockpile of unpublished material — 66 songs among four notebooks — was kept in a fireproof vault at his Nashville publishing company, Acuff-Rose Publications. When Acuff-Rose was acquired by Sony ATV Music in 2002, the vault was transferred to the new owners’ offices, kept under the watchful eye of longtime Acuff-Rose staffer Peggy Lamb, who still holds the title of “Hank Williams Catalogue Specialist.”
Hank Williams Jr. culled several songs from the notebooks and recorded them on his 1969 album “Songs My Father Left Me,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and songwriter Mickey Newbury also tackled a few during his lifetime. But other than that, the lyrics largely lay dormant for decades.
“They weren’t hidden or kept from people, but they just became forgotten over time,” said Michael McCall, writer and editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which throws a spotlight on the notebooks in its “Family Tradition” exhibit. “Once you see them, and see how strong the lyrics are, you’re amazed that Hank hadn’t recorded them, and sad that he didn’t have the chance to.”
With Dylan leading the way, there have been few aspersions cast over the artistic intent behind this project, for which there are scattered precedents, such as Brian Wilson’s recent album “Brian Wilson Reimagines George Gershwin” in which the ex-Beach Boy was allowed by the Gershwin estate to finish and record two uncompleted songs.
In earlier generations, composers attempted from time to time to craft a fitting final movement for Schubert’s famously “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8. And some daring writers have tried to finish books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Love of the Last Tycoon.”
After a 2001 all-star tribute album, “Hank Williams: Timeless,” won a Grammy Award for country album of the year, interest in other projects ramped up. One of the producers of “Timeless,” veteran A&R executive Mary Martin, was asked about other ways to call attention to material out of Williams’ archive.
“Bob Dylan was given the first whack at doing 12 songs for a CD,” Martin said, “and the estate was more than happy it should be a single artist doing that.” Instead, Dylan opted for a multi-artist lineup, at which point project organizers began reaching out to singers who were also songwriters who had demonstrated a strong affinity for Williams and his music. The primary mission: to come up with music that fit the lyrics, though participants were allowed to add words, verses or bridges where Williams had left only fragments. The restriction was they couldn’t alter the essential character of what Williams had jotted down.
A few declined, although Martin didn’t name names. “Perhaps some people were intimidated,” she said, “perhaps some tried and perhaps they just couldn’t get there.”
Those who jumped at the opportunity include Alan Jackson, who turned in what may be the album’s most quintessential Hank Williams track, the album-opening “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too.” Jack White snarls a quivering comeuppance to one who has rejected him in “You Know That I Know,” and Jakob Dylan brings out Williams’ folk-blues side in “Oh, Mama, Come Home.” Dylan the pater grabbed “The Love That Faded,” creating a floor-walking honky-tonk waltz through heartache:
The love that faded left me only tears
Days that were happy turned into lonely years
Vows that we made turned into lies
My life is empty, my lonely heart cries.
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.”
Merle Haggard matter-of-factly noted that he “had to fix a couple of lines” in the song he selected, “The Sermon on the Mount,” which closes the album on a note that’s by turns cautionary, comforting and inspirational.
“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.”