On November 16, 2007, it came out that Bob Dylan had acquired some unfinished songs that had been in Hiram Hank Williams briefcase when he died. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now exactly how Bob Dylan acquired these song sheets. At some point apparently Bob sought the help of none other than Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs) to help him finish at least one of these songs.
Other artists rumored to be involved in the project include Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, and Lucinda Williams.
Possibly the only reason we know anything about this project is because of a guy named Dominic Suchyta, a bass player for Jack White, who blabbed about a recording session he had participated in involving these unfinished Hank Sr. songs.
Dominic Suchyta from November 16, 2007:
“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, but that Donny Herron who plays with Bob Dylan was.
“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.”
The next time information surfaced about these unfinished songs and the recording of them was on November 26th in an MTV News interview with Jack White himself:
“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.” Other Information:
Some reports are calling the name of the album or project the Briefcase Songs, but this can’t be verified.
I’ve seen some unverifiable information that back in 2004 Sony/BMG and the administrators of the Hank Williams estate approved the idea of Bob Dylan taking a run at putting music to the lyrics and the songs were sent off to Dylan, and that at the time Dylan either did not have the time to deal with the project, or that he tried to finish and record the songs but was not happy with the results. But again, I cannot verify this.
Also it is rumored that there were as many as 35 songs that were actually taken from the briefacse, but only 20 to 25 were given to Dylan.
Please note too that these songs are NOT the ‘Unreleased’ songs that I talked about in my last blog, nor the ‘Lost Notebook’ Hank Williams songs which are a whole nother matter altogether.
My first reaction when I heard about this was probably very similar to many of yours: If anybody should be messing with these songs, it should be Hank Williams III. And I have to say, even back in the day when I was just a passive Hank III fan, when I’d only heard Risin’ Outlaw, I would’ve still felt this way, simply because NOBODY even comes close to matching Hank Sr.’s songwriting style and voice than Hank III. Maybe Wayne Hancock, but certainly not Norah Jones or even Willie Nelson.
Furthermore, I just feel icky thinking about ANYBODY trying to create or re-create the germ of the idea behind these songs, that only Hank Williams heart ever truly knew. This is bullshit. And it makes me sick, confused, mad, and curious.
But having said all of that, I feel like I need to say a few things about the situation and the artists in involved. Some of you might get pissed at what I say here, but you have to understand that music is a business, an ugly business, and something like this is not uncommon, in fact it is very common.
What We Don’t Know
It’s important to understand that there is a LOT we don’t know about this story. A lot of people are saying that Bob Dylan got these songs through some shady outlet, but if we are to believe the unverifiable story about Sony and the Hank Williams estate (aka Hank Jr. & Co.) giving these songs to Dylan, then Dyan did nothing wrong in that regard, and if anybody did, it was the Hank estate. Can you fault Dylan if someone threw a bunch of Hank Williams songs in his lap and said run with them?
We also don’t know that Hank III is not part of this project. If there were 20-25 songs, and Dylan only recorded one, and Jack White only recorded one, and the others only recorded one, how are we to say that Hank III didn’t record one or some of the others? What we can say, is there were more artists involved than what have been named so far.
The Music Biz
Most songs, esp. country songs, meaning the lyrics and the music itself, not the recordings, but usually the recordings as well, are not owned by the artists, but publishing companies that deal with them like any other product, sometimes buying and selling them without any or little input from the artist themselves.
For example, for a long time the Beatles did not own the rights to their songs, none other than Michael Jackson did. Michael Fucking Jackson. Do you remember years back when Michael Jackson briefly married Lisa Marie Presley? The whole thing was a sham. The intention behind it was to marry together two of the largest privately-owned music rights libraries in the world.
Neil Young has one of Hank Williams’ guitars. Hank III has one of Johny Cash’s guitars, given to him by Hank Jr. This is the crazy world of music where stuff ends up in places people outside the music industry would think it doesn’t belong.
The Artists Involved:
Let’s just say I was a world famous country musician. I would not want to touch these songs. I would feel so intimidated by the task, and I would feel dirty performing it.
As for Norah Jones and Alan Jackson, whatever. Think about what you want about them, but I think we can all agree they do not have the type of talent that would be good for trying to represent the soul behind a Hank Williams song.
I am not a big Lucinda Williams fan, but I do give her credit for being an incredible songwriter, and someone who appreciates the artistry behind the craft. She might the most qualified out of this bunch to do this, but still, should she be? How does she know what direction Hank Williams meant for the music behind the lyrics to go?
Willie Nelson on the surface might seem like someone you wouldn’t mind in this project, but Willie Nelson’s biggest influence is not Hank Williams like it was for Waylon and Johny Cash and others. Willie’s biggest influence was Bob Wills. He laughs off a lot of Hank Williams fanfare as hype.
The fact that Jack White is involved with a Bob Dylan project smacks of the old artist trying to get legitimacy by teaming up with the old guy trying to hold on to relevancy. AKA, Hank Jr. teaming with Kid Rock, or Neil Young with Pearl Jam, etc etc. I never could get into The White Stripes, even though people I respected musically told me I should. It was just too poppy for me. But I will say, with the Raconteurs, Jack proved that he is not just some pop rock blow hard. Again, I don’t think he should be one representing what a Hank Williams song should sound like, BUT don’t dismiss him as a nothing musician. He’s got a little bit in the bag, and is a shredder guitar player in a classic blusey style. YouTube the Raconteurs if you want.
Bob Dylan is the most influential songwriter of the last 60 years, and possibly of the last 100 years, in all of music. The only man who could even possibly rival him would be Hank Williams. I’m not talking BEST songwriter, but most influential. And he’s not just a folk or rock guy. He’s recorded multiple straight country albums, and they are good. Nashville Skyline is one of my favorite albums of all time. If you told me that someone was going to have to record these Hank Williams songs, Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been my first pick, but he definitely would’ve been on the short list. DON’T DISCOUNT BOB DYLAN. Sure his voice is shot, but he’s got more skins on the wall than any living musician on the planet.
In my opinion, we do not have enough information about this situation to make a clear judgment. There’s also a chance here that if there is a villian, it is the Hank Williams estate, who has allowed this whole thing to happen. I’m not going to get on Bob Dylan until I know the whole story.
You also have to understand Hank III’s place in the world. We all love him and he’s a part of our lives. But average Joe has never even heard the name. Bob Dylan might not even know he exists, or if he does, never heard his music, or has heard that he’s ‘washed up’ or ‘turned metal.’ Hank III’s legacy has been buried by Curb Records and the Nashville Oligarchy. That’s the whole reason I’m doing this Free Hank III thing. But again, maybe III is even on the album. We just don’t know.
Believe it or not, I’ve actually got more to say and I wanted to include some YouTubes in this, but I’ll stop. You’re opinions pro and con are welcome.