When Hank Williams died en route to a gig early on New Year’s Day 1953, alongside him in the back seat of the Cadillac was a briefcase containing his notebooks, full of unfinished songs, orphaned lyrics to which he had yet to add melodies. The job has been finished here by a cohort of illustrious performers including Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Jack White and Sheryl Crow, each offering their own twist on Williams’s trademark style.
Some follow the template a touch slavishly, albeit fruitfully: Alan Jackson’s “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” brings the fatalistic lilt of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to mind vividly, the singer sympathetically evoking Hank’s demotic tone in lines like “You’re travelling on the street of grief/ Yes, you’ve been lonesome, too”. It’s the communal sentiment underlying such ostensibly personal heartache that gives Williams’s songs much of their power, that draws the listener in as an emotional fellow-traveller; likewise, the inveterate liar fingered in Jack White’s tremulous delivery of “You Know That I Know” is exposed for all of us to condemn, despite his devious wiles: “You may fool the rest of the world, but you know that I know”.
Unsurprisingly, the dozen tracks are heavily weighted towards the sad and lonely heartbreak of which Williams is the unchallenged master – residing a hundred floors above the rest of them in the “Tower of Song”, as Leonard Cohen generously acknowledged. Despite the project being released through his Egyptian label, Bob Dylan has unselfishly left the more notable lyrics to other performers, restricting himself to a fairly cliched country waltz, “The Love That Faded”, presented in his inimitably quixotic manner. Levon Helm, his voice now thankfully all but completely recovered from the debilitations of throat cancer, lands an authentic twang of pained Southern nobility to “You’ll Never Again Be Mine”, while Norah Jones brings a deep melancholy to her harmonies on “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?”, where the Spanish guitar line imposes a sense of bitten-back tears, a musical stiff upper lip.
Most of the arrangements stick to the tried and tested simple country settings that served Williams’s songs so well; the exceptions include Levon’s mandolin and fiddle treatment of “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” and Sheryl Crow’s lilting approach to “Angel Mine”, where period horns and mandolin evoke a specifically 1940s atmosphere. Elsewhere, a couple of the tracks deliberately play with the moralistic, religious overtones employed by Williams in his alter-ego Luke The Drifter. Merle Haggard brings the appropriate Biblical gravitas to “The Sermon on the Mount”, advising us to “take the straight and narrow, do good things that count, and live your life by the Sermon on the Mount”, while Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell even add substantial Luke-style spoken sections to their waltz-time rendition of “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears”, ironically offering one of Hank’s less Christian sentiments: “The Bible says forgive you, but that’s something I can’t do”.
Andy Gill, The Independent