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Breakin’ new hearts with old tricks

by The Concordian October 18, 2011
Breakin’ new hearts with old tricks

When country legend Hank Williams died on his way to perform a concert on New Year’s Eve in 1952, he was carrying a briefcase filled with notes—ideas, thoughts, lyrics. Decades later, when they had become something of a myth, Bob Dylan got his hands on the notes, and decided to complete and record a handful of these songs. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, released Oct. 4, is a fascinating exercise in music, of course, but in ethics also. Dylan, in the end, contributed only one song to the set, a strong but understated waltz titled, “The Love That Faded.” Because he found the entire project too much to take on — and who wouldn’t? — he instead served as the executive producer, assembling an A-list cast of singer-songwriters to each carry the weight of one song. To receive lyrics penned by Hank Williams and the task to compose their music from Bob Dylan could very well be the most daunting challenge one could throw at any musician, but one that seems most irresistible. Alan Jackson, who turned in the album’s stand out “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too” (surely the closest we’ll ever get to a new Williams tune), has said collaborating with Dylan himself on an original song was an opportunity he simply couldn’t pass up. And, coming from a country veteran, that’s understandable. Despite the temptation, some artists passed up the opportunity. Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young were approached but opted not to participate and many praised them for their decision. Perhaps their reluctance is in part due to the backlash that was felt after British musician Billy Bragg released Mermaid Avenue, a two-volume album (1998 and 2000), using Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics. In fact, even Guthrie’s own daughter was uncomfortable with the idea. Not everyone is happy about the Williams project either. A Facebook group named “Stop the Desecration of Hank Williams Unfinished Songs” has almost 700 “likes,” with some angered fans likening Sheryl Crow singing Hank Williams to “a blind man preaching to deaf people,” while others more delicately referred to the work as a “shit sandwich.” The editorial director of CMT and CMT.com Chet Flippo best summed up the debate when he asked, “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?” For many, the analogy is as accurate as you can get. Still, the fact of the matter is: we now have a collection of 12 songs, of which some are pretty darn good. Jack White is a solid spokesperson for both Williams’ humour and the 21st century’s musical aesthetics on “You Know I Know,” and Lucinda Williams strikes on “I’m So Happy I Found You” with a startling balance between strength and delicacy. Does the fact that Williams never approved these songs, or potentially could have bettered them, make them deplorable, or is the creation and transmission of quality music the dominating principle? The list of contributors surely provides Dylan with strong backup; the set features country superstars Merle Haggard, Patty Loveless and Vince Gill, as well as other established musicians like Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, and Williams’ granddaughter Holly (his son, Hank Jr., provides background vocals). Both Crow and Jakob Dylan, the music legend’s son, argued their side saying they aimed to write a good song, not a Hank Williams song. “I wouldn’t be so lofty or arrogant to think I was actually co-writing with Hank Williams,” Dylan told The New York Times. “This was one way to interpret the lyrics, but I don’t think it defines the song.” Crow even described her relationship with her lyrics as that of a teacher with their student: “I think whenever you’re playing tennis with John McEnroe, it ups your level a little, so I hope this did something for my own art.” That’s why, though the debate and project centre on a man whose work I hold very dear to my heart, I ultimately find myself supporting it: it was executed with heart and much effort to honour, of course, but also to share a part of Williams we never knew. That so many artists were passionate about collaborating on an original record inspired by Williams is more concrete a reminder of how powerful and influential his songwriting was than any tribute album could be. There’s just no gettin’ over “Lonesome Hank.”

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