Bob Dylan Helps Bring Hank Williams' Lost Notebooks Back from the Dead

By , Contributor

It sounds like the name of a noir mystery, and in some regards it is, but on October 4, Bob Dylan’s own rather enigmatic label, Egyptian Records, in a partnership with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Columbia Records will release The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.

Only the second title to be released on Egyptian—the wheels of the Dylan-esque universe grind slowly (the first was 1997’s The Songs of Jimmie Rogers: A Tribute Album)—this is a collection of previously unrecorded Hank Williams lyrics newly put to music and performed for the first time by an A-list of artists with a spiritual kinship to Williams' far too small legacy, which consisted of only 30 sings recorded between December 1946 and September 1952.

The idea for this project came about when the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were putting together a 5000-square foot exhibition titled Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy back in March, 2008. This intimate, behind-the-scenes look at an American musical dynasty got organizers thinking that it might have more impact if they could, well, create a kind of soundtrack fashioned out of the lyrics that Williams has famously left behind in a scuffed, embroidered, brown leather notebook after his untimely death on New Year’s Eve, 1952 at 29 years old.

Out of sight and out of mind, the 66 songs were all but forgotten by the world, stored for years in a locked, fireproof safe in the offices of Acuff-Rose Publications, safeguarded by Acuff-Rose employee Peggy Lamb. According to music historian Michael McCall, who wrote the liner notes for this collection, over the years the Acuff-Rose copyrights were sold, and each time they were, Lamb went with them, keeping a maternal eye on the almost forgotten treasures.

It wasn’t until 2001 that anyone took them seriously when music executive Kira Florita began working on a box set, The Complete Hank Williams, and an accompanying book, Snapshots from Los Highway, which included photographic images of several of the unrecorded songs from the notebooks.

That same year, Lost Highway Records released Timeless, a tribute to Williams, co-produced by music veteran Mary Martin. While doing research for the record, she stumbled across the Snapshots book and a light bulb went off. She knew she had to resurrect those songs, but it took her the better part of the decade to make that dream a reality—the copyrights were sold again, and one of the notebooks was stolen by a member of cleaning staff at the Sony ATV offices where the lyrics were then housed. Eventually they were recovered, but Martin still had one more hurdle to jump through—to get a famous name to sponsor the project. It all came together when she spoke to Bob Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen.

He brought the idea to Dylan, who had famously written in his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1 what a huge impact Williams had on his music: "The sound of Hank Williams' voice went through me like an electric rod. When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege."

After that, things began to progress. Who better to contact fellow Williams fans to take the unfinished songs and do them in a style that would honor the iconic artist? I mean, who really could turn down Bob Dylan? Right, no one.

At least not Jack White, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Alan Jackson, and Dylan’s own son Jakob. But let me put you out of your misery and give you the entire tracklisting, all comprised of Dylan cronies:

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

1. You've Been Lonesome, Too - Alan Jackson
2. The Love That Faded - Bob Dylan
3. How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart? - Norah Jones
4. You Know That I Know - Jack White
5. I'm So Happy I Found You - Lucinda Williams
6. I Hope You Shed a Million Tears - Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell
7. You're Through Fooling Me - Patty Loveless
8. You'll Never Again Be Mine - Levon Helm
9. Blue Is My Heart - Holly Williams
10. Oh, Mama, Come Home - Jakob Dylan
11. Angel Mine - Sheryl Crow
12. The Sermon on the Mount - Merle Haggard

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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