December 2, 2011
"Music touches everybody, even Jay."
— O. D. McGee
What my esteemed younger brother had in mind when serving up that observation to friend and fellow musician Barry Garneau back in the day had to do with the fact that, although a lifelong music obsessive, I possessed no inherent abilities within the art form itself. I couldn’t whistle or play a kazoo or carry a tune in a proverbial bucket, as they say.
Music, however, McGee insisted, held the power to reach even my bottom-of-the-food-chain melodic sensibility. I understood perfectly and not only bought into his perception back then but totally agree with it to this day. It’s one of the Gospels according to McGee. Who am I to argue?
The memory of his philosophical barb came rushing back when I began listening to a recently acquired copy of the compilation CD, "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams." My first reaction upon hearing the opening steel-guitar riff was an attempt to recall that quintessential tuning made famous by Hank’s "Drifting Cowboys" band mate Don Helms.
Back in the ’70s as a C&W DJ in Salt Lake, I felt that understanding the essence of the Hank Williams sound was as important to the trade as learning to negotiate the dance floor with a long-neck Budweiser over at the Mr. Lucky Club just off Redwood Road.
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Other than his musicianship and soulful approach to the material, what differentiated Don Helm’s signature sound from other steel-guitar players of the day were his special tunings and string configurations. All it ever took was just one note and you knew immediately that you were listening to "Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys." Even for Jay!
But back to the lost notebooks and the mythology still surrounding the late, great Hank Williams. It seems that for years preceding his untimely death at 29 in the back of his Cadillac on the way to a gig early on New Year’s morning 1953, Hank had collected and stored sets of lyrics and notes on various song ideas.
As Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame writes in the album liner notes: "When Hank Williams died, he left behind a scuffed, embroidered brown leather briefcase. Like its owner, the briefcase appeared weathered beyond its years, yet it retained a dignified bearing that abuse couldn’t erase."
McCall goes on to tell the convoluted tale of how the notebooks were initially put in safekeeping by Acuff-Rose, Hank’s publisher, and then somehow survived the myriad of corporate buyouts that ensued, moving from one vault to another until, finally, coming into the possession of album producer Mary Martin.
Martin’s idea was to entice Williams aficionado Bob Dylan to take the notebooks, add music and lyrics where needed, and record an album like Billy Bragg and Wilco had done a few years back with a cache of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics.
Coming to the conclusion that others needed to be involved, Martin and Dylan assembled a cast of "usual suspects" and had each write music and "arrange" their selected song for the record. In that way, they all became co-writers with Hank Williams. How cool is that?
The posse, all songwriters in their own right, all "get their Hank on," to be sure, but Norah Jones, to these ears, is devastatingly brilliant on "How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?" and Jakob Dylan’s spare arrangement and vocal on "Oh Mama, Come Home" is heartbreakingly Hank.
Current Nashvillians such as Alan Jackson (You’ve Been Lonesome, Too") and Patty Loveless ("You’re Through Fooling Me") demonstrate why they made the cut. Both of their vocal styles flaunt a "swing" component that works perfectly with their arrangements of these new Hank tunes.
The elder Dylan also swings through a down-tempo waltz-time arrangement of "The Love That Faded," recorded sometime back before Charlie Sexton rejoined his band. Levon Helm’s rustic and recognizable vocal is in fine company with super-instrumentalist Larry Campbell from his Woodstock "Midnight Ramble" band "Hankin’ it up" on "You’ll Never Again Be Mine."
Lucinda Williams ("I’m So Happy I Found You") and Sheryl Crow ("Angel Mine"), who both appeared on the Grammy-award winning "Timeless" Hank tribute, prove once again to be perfectly at home in his dark and haunting lyrical landscapes.
Now I never would have thought that Jack White would show up here, but boy does he have his guitar-driven way with "You Know That I Know." Hank’s granddaughter (and Hank Jr.’s daughter) Holly Williams nails "Blue is My Heart" and is a pure vocal delight, replete with every Hank nuance you could imagine.
And did I mention that, as part of the Vince Gill & Rodney Crowell take on the Luke-the-Drifter-ish "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears," that the actual, in-the-flesh, Don Helms played in his last session before passing away.
And then there’s Merle Haggard. What can you say? Even Jay gets "the Hag."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.