As far as songs go, few prove as challenging to sing as our national anthem.
It’s a technically demanding tune from first note to last, to be sure, beginning with a low bellow that quickly soars toward star-punching high notes, eventually swelling to a show-stopping crescendo that even the most seasoned performer can have trouble mastering.
As if the man born Hiram King Williams’ influence on country music (and
all subsequently affected genres, particularly rock ’n’ roll) wasn’t
already completely obvious and seminal, the long-dead crooner had to go
and scribble a bunch more terrific songs about heartbreak and loneliness
into his diary, just to remind us of his ownership of the subject
matter even generations after he died.
Now unearthed, some genius (not sarcasm) at Columbia thought it’d be a great idea to recruit a handful of singers indebted to Williams for the purpose of recording an album that simultaneously acts as tribute and debut.
None of these songs were ever recorded, according to Columbia. Who finished writing them, we don’t know, but this collection, "The Lost Notebooks," is really stellar. You’ve got a good range of singers who regularly work in a bunch of traditional veins interesting material to work with, and a wild card with Jack White’s face on it. How can you go wrong?
Alan Jackson’s register is most similar to Williams’, so it makes sense that his entry, “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too,” kicks “The Lost Notebooks” off, even if it’s a little bit vanilla (c’mon guys, a fiddle and steel guitar?). It’s also truest, lyrically, to Williams’ expertise as a bard of sorrow, and probably tells the best story here.
It sounds like Bob Dylan may have used the same backing band as Jackson, but thankfully, his vocal gurgling on “The Love That Faded” really loosens things up. Also, his son Jakob’s contribution, “Oh, Mama, Come Home,” made me think two thoughts for the first time:
1. I really wish he would do more songs Jack Johnson-style.
2. This is way better than what his dad did.
Levon Helm’s entry goes down smooth and sorrowful, thanks to his signature register and a squad of female backup singers. And Merle Haggard gives his obligatory appearance as the hillbilly preacher man: “He brought strength of Gaawwwwd and morals, to mortals who were weak.”
Lucinda Williams’ take on “I’m So Happy I Found You” is so very ironic to the title that you can’t help but imagine Hank’s smiling up in cowboy heaven. It also proves the universality of Williams’ songs, that they seem just as natural from the female perspective as the male. Also, I think Norah Jones’ dainty, twangy “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?” warrants a whole Norah Jones country album. Watch a live version below.
While I’m very much biased toward the genius behind the White Stripes, I think Mr. White’s contribution is the best one here. For starters, he’s working a lot harder to do old Hank proud than any of the male singers on the record. Just listen 20 seconds into “You Know That I Know” and you hear him drawing out those vowels like daggers, like he’s swaying back and forth, about to tumble off the old wooden stool he’s perched on. Also, that quavering honky-tonk guitar of his is just terrific. I wonder if White picked this song specifically for the line “the last time I saw you, your pretty hair was red / But today, I see you’ve got black hair on your head.” It so perfectly fits his art-rock color scheme construction. Shuffle it somewhere into “Get Behind Me Satan,” and most listeners wouldn’t be the wiser.
One small complaint: There’s a bunch of time in between songs here. Throughout listening to this compilation, I’d worried that the CD had unexpectedly stopped spinning.
Last thing: “Our love was like a sacred scroll you ne’er did learn to read / I gave to you my heart and soul, and you left it there to bleed,” is an absolutely fantastic simile (it’s on Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell’s terrific, depressing “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears”), one that ranks up at the top of Williams’ best writing, alongside “then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” It’s timeless poetry.
Thank that good Lord we got this previously unknown collection of Williams’ songs. They really do add a lot to his already impressive catalogue.