Release of Controversial Unfinished Hank Williams Songs

The Rolling Stone has just reported that a long-rumored project pairing Bob Dylan and Jack White together to oversee the recording of an album of Hank Williams songs that were found without music in a briefcase in the back of his Blue Cadillac where he died in 1953, will be released on October 4th. The title is The Lost Notebook of Hank Williams, it is being released on Dylan’s Egyptian Records imprint, and can already be pre-ordered on Amazon.

Saving Country Music first reported on this project way back in October of 2008, after rumors of the project made some very speculative about the ethics, legitimacy, and viability of the artists chosen to flesh out these songs. There is also some question on how Bob Dylan actually obtained these unfinished songs.

Jack White first explained the idea and workings behind the project to MTV, on Nov. 26th, 2007:

Bob’s putting together an album. He came upon, somehow, 20-25 unfinished songs by Hank Williams: just the lyrics, no music, and he started to ask people if they would finish these songs. He did one, asked Willie Nelson to do one, asked me to do one, and I think Lucinda Williams and Alan Jackson are on it too. I think it might come out this year (2008). It’s a cool record.”

Dominic Suchyta, a bass player for Jack White, had also elaborated on the project ten days before:

“This project started when Bob Dylan acquired the ‘lost’ Hank Williams songs. Essentially, the lyric sheets Hank died with in his briefcase. Jack is my oldest friend, we talk on occasion and he asked me to come down and record. Dylan had contacted him to see if he’d like to finish some of these tunes.”

“No doubt Dylan recorded a tune for it with the Modern Times sessions. I’ve also heard through the grapevine that Willie Nelson and Norah Jones are involved, but like I said this is a shot in the dark. It’s been an interesting project in that sense. I’m a huge fan of Hank Williams and was moved to hear what Jack had to contribute.”

“We did the session in one long day, live in a circle with some mics around—much like Hank would have.”

Suchyta also said that the recording session was at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, and that Bob Dylan wasn’t involved

They recorded an unfinished Williams song called “You Know That I Know.” No one has heard it as it was a Hank Williams lyric sheet that Jack put to music and edited a bit. Jack was sent most of or all of the unfinished tunes and picked this one to finish. We listened to quite a bit of Hank while I was down there and sat around the two of us playing our favorite Hank tunes, but the song was done when I got there. I think Jack just ingested a bunch of Hank Williams and this is what came out of him.”

Though we now have a title, a release date, and a track list for this project, many questions still remain. How did Bob Dylan obtain these songs? Is the Hank Williams Estate involved in any way? Is it even ethical to take a dead man’s songs, all without music, some with unfinished lyrics, and attempt to flesh them out using a perspective 55 years in the future? Why can’t these lyric sheets live as poetry?

And I understand this is a commercial project, and using well-recognized names is essential to the commercial viability, but why not make an attempt to involve the Williams family more, or others who may be more qualified to interpret the original style of Hank Williams, especially because of the clearly controversial nature of the project? Were they asked and didn’t want to be involved? Why did Willie Nelson’s involvement in the project dissolve? Where are the rest of these 25 songs? Why release them now, when at least some were recorded nearly 5 years ago? Does the timing have anything to do with the release of Hank Williams: The Legend Begins this Sep. 13th?

Saving Country Music will be attempting to answer these questions before the release date, and beyond if necessary. I have nothing but respect for Bob Dylan, Jack White, and many of the other artists involved in this project, but the unusual nature of it begs for more transparency and information, so that fans and consumers can make an educated decision on if this project is a commercial cash grab, or if the legacy of Hank Williams is being respected and forwarded by this release.

Track List:

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