Less an album than some kind of twisted exercise in ethics, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams arrives amid considerable controversy and a host of serious questions about artistic license and record-label machinations. Blogger “The Triggerman,” of the generally excellent Saving Country Music, has articulated perhaps the most important questions raised by this project in a lengthy editorial; in short, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams invites a roster of well-known country and rock artists to complete the lyrics and write the melodies for a set of partially finished Hank Williams songs, and the folks in charge of marketing the project have repeatedly changed their stories regarding who owns the material and what the greater intention of the album is.
It’s territory both muddy and unstable: Who would be so presumptuous to take a half-completed Van Gogh and try to fill the rest of the canvas? From a songwriting perspective, that isn’t a far-fetched analogy, as Williams’s songs established so much of what’s considered archetype for country music and singer-songwriters in general. But it’s worth mentioning that Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen were both approached for the album but declined to participate, that Willie Nelson claims to have recorded a song for the album that’s inexplicably not included here, and that Hank Williams III, whose music and artistic vision speak to his grandfather’s legacy as much as any other contemporary artist’s does, wasn’t asked to participate. There’s just something about The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams that smells fishy.
That said, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the ethical dilemmas that finishing a dead man’s songs present, and Alan Jackson, whose “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” opens the album with one of its strongest tracks, has stated that he simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to collaborate on a Hank Williams original. For country veterans like Jackson, Patty Loveless, and Vince Gill, that’s an easy impulse to understand. The same can be said for authenticity fetishist Jack White and Sheryl Crow, who never met a tribute album she didn’t like. Jackson and the majority of the artists who appear on the album approach their songs with reverence for the economy of language and the lonesome blues that characterize Williams’s iconic work.
Nonetheless, all ethical squickiness aside, the album is a mixed bag. Levon Helm’s “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” is produced with a contemporary bluegrass bent that doesn’t necessarily match Williams’s aesthetic, but Helm’s ragged delivery speaks to the heavy blues influence in Williams’s songs. Loveless’s “You’re Through Fooling Me” is yet another reminder that she’s one of country’s finest, most soulful singers. Merle Haggard, perhaps the most obvious artist to include on an album like this, is in fine voice on “The Sermon on the Mount,” a gently rollicking bit of Southern gospel.
White has proven himself knowledgeable when it comes to vintage country music, but his performance on “You Know That I Know,” which includes a couple of awkward rhymes, suggests an impersonation of Williams rather than a genuine interpretation. Rodney Crowell, one of country’s most reliable singer-songwriters, turns in a stilted—and frankly embarrassing—spoken-word interlude on “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears,” a duet with Gill. The Williams family is represented on “Blue Is My Heart”: Hank Sr.‘s granddaughter, Holly Williams, turns the song into a straightforward Americana number, and her father, Hank Williams Jr., provides backing vocals; it’s an adequate performance, but it isn’t necessarily strong enough to stand as any kind of ringing endorsement from Williams’s descendants.
That the album is so wildly uneven perhaps speaks to the underlying quandaries its concept presents. Consistently on-point artists like White and Crowell misfire badly here, suggesting that perhaps Williams’s unfinished songs were better left unfinished. The songs by Jackson, Loveless, and Helm, however, are truly inspired and give The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams value beyond its dubious gimmick. But there’s no getting around the fact that not one of these songs can be tagged as a newly unearthed Hank Williams song, so not even the best tracks scan as anything more than reverent “tribute” recordings.