It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here?
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (Waylon Jennings)
The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams: Various Artists (Sony, October 2011)
There were four of them, notebooks that is, with handwritten lyrics (in scratchy blue black pen and ink) without melodies when Hank Williams died. This re-imagining presents just twelve of the lyrics with freshly-minted melodies by established artists. Or maybe it’s deep-frozen-minted melodies. The issue is that too many of them think, ‘Is this what Hank woulda done?’ and valiantly attempt to write Hank Williams melodies. Or is it that the force of the rhythm inherent in the lyric leads them that way? The instrumentation is pretty much what Hank woulda used … guitar, string bass, drums, violin and pedal steel … which exacerbates the effect. Alan Jackson’s opener, You’ve Been Lonesome Too, is the worst offender. Sounds great, but totally as expected, as does You’re Through Fooling Me by Patty Loveless.
The ones that deviate most from the WhatHankwouldadone template stand out above the crowd … Oh, Mama, Come Home by Jakob Dylan, and Angel, Mine by Sheryl Crow. Oh, Mama, Come Home sounds more J.J. Cale than Hank, and Sheryl’s addition of trumpet and a mellow guitar solo makes a welcome change from just immaculate pedal steel and fiddle. Of course it has the former too.
Two that are pretty much right on the template also stand out because they’re so beautifully performed … You’ll Never Again Be Mine by Levon Helm, co-written with Larry Campbell, and sounding like an outtake from his Dirt Farmer, and How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart by Norah Jones. Both have pretty standard Hank Williams lyrics though.
My favourite, maybe because of the lyric, is I Hope You Shed A Million Tears by Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell. The long spoken section echoes both Elvis on It’s Now or Never, and in mood, The Band’s slightly tongue-in-cheek rendering of Long Black Veil. The lyric’s powerful rather than anodyne (as a few here are). Gill and Crowell have a concept beyond guessing what a Hank Williams tune would be like, and guessing the same as everyone else. As such, it’s not like another song and all the better for it. Another powerful lyric is Sermon on The Mount, with melody and vocal by Merle Haggard, but I never quite get hell-raisin’ country singers getting pious.
Jack White chose one of the better lyrics in You Know, That I Know, but it’d highly predicatable, and his attempt at a quavering vocal just sounds quavering, not authentic. Lucinda Williams sounds like a pastiche of Lucinda Williams on I’m So Happy I Found You. So does Holly Williams (Hank’s granddaughter) on Blue Is My Heart. Lucinda Williams has the excuse that she actually IS Lucinda Williams. Holly doesn’t. Maybe it’s all in the DNA, but Holly’s tune (with assistance from her dad, Hank Williams Jnr) sounds most like her grandad’s work.
The one that gets most attention is the one that kick-started the project, Bob Dylan on The Love That Faded. His croak is less dire than usual, and the backing riff and tune is as good as he does now. The thing is the lyric is below Bob’s standard, and you recall these were the ones Hank Williams chose NOT to work up into songs. I prefer Jakob’s choice.