Duets with a ghost
“I just want to live and love you, always be your clinging vine.
“There could never be another, sweet as you, Angel Mine.”
- Hank Williams & Sheryl Crow, 1952 & 2011
When Hank Williams died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 1953, he left behind more than a legacy of great music. While at the tender age of 29 he’d already had a career that would leave most artists jealous, there was another bequest to us as well, one that hardly saw the light until recently.
In his car the night of his death were a set of four notebooks, containing a total of 61 partially written songs. Those songs have made their way around Nashville quite a bit over the past six decades (a story for another time), but were mostly held in the offices of Williams’ publisher, Acuff-Rose.
That is, until recently, when longtime Williams admirer Bob Dylan assembled a roster of songwriters to work on the unfinished songs. A set of 12 of them were released last year on an album entitled “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.”
Those who got the honor of co-writing with the master are a diverse group. Dylan approached a variety of artists who were influenced by Williams or had some connection to him: among them country artists like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Merle Haggard, rocker Jack White and Americana singer Lucinda Williams (no relation). You might think of Norah Jones as a jazz-pop artists, but she had a Hank Williams cover on her first album and her current band, the Little Willies (named after Willie Nelson) is heavily influenced by country and western swing.
The reviews on the album were mostly positive, but there was some push back, which is why I’m writing.
Some people were offended that the project was undertaken at all. Country music historian Chet Flippo praised the album, but also spoke for many when he wondered “If you were a painter and were asked to execute a painting based on a very rudimentary fragment of sketches by Picasso, would you do that?”
The sentiment was echoed in many online reviews: “Leave Hank’s legacy alone,” some fans seemed to be saying.
My thoughts are that it’s been nearly six decades since Williams death. Whatever he created belongs to all of us. Let me say this now: If I ever write anything worthy of using after my death, even if it’s a fragment, you’re welcome to it. I’m worm-food at that point, I no longer care about my copyrights.
Another complaint seems to be about the artist choices. Some reviewers liked Alan Jackson, but just about no one else; they’re apparently not “country enough.” Narrow-mindedness about musical genres is pervasive, especially in country music. But Hank’s influence extends far beyond country music.
Some of those were upset that particular artists were not included, most notably Hank Williams Jr. and Hank the third. Hank III gets this a lot these days because he looks so much like his grandfather and sounds a bit like him vocally.
What these complainers forget is that for artists to find their own voice, they cannot simply mimic their famous relatives. This is why you haven’t heard much lately from Marty or Noel Haggard. Their music was a poor version of their dad’s.
On the other hand, Hank Williams Jr., while proud of his father, found success when he found his own style, which is closer to country-rock than his father’s music. Hank III’s albums mix country, heavy metal and punk influences and he has a substantial following of his own.
Being the child of a famous artist can open doors, but it can also involve some unrealistic expectations. Those who have had good careers are those who have carved their own path. Hank Williams Jr’s music sounds little like his father’s nor does his son’s mimic his. Roseanne Cash became successful not by mimicking her famous dad, but by finding her own voice.
Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams (half sister to Hank III) was included in the project, contributing the collaboration “Blue is My Heart.” Holly Williams is also an artist who has found a voice of her own, somewhere between folk and country. She has two well-reviewed albums to her credit.
Holly Williams could have some good advice for critics of the Notebooks album. She’s made a quote of her grandfather’s into a personal motto, “I don’t know what you mean by country,” he said, “I just write songs.”
As always, Hank, well put.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.