NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Over the years, Holly Williams never felt much of a connection to her grandfather. So when she slipped on a pair of white gloves and lifted one of Hank Williams‘ old spiral-bound notebooks to inspect its pages full of careful cursive script recently at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, she was a little bit startled to feel a deep visceral reaction.
“Just amazement,” she said a few minutes later. “Just shock and awe.”
Touching the notebooks left her with a feeling of “just how prolific he was.”
“I’m 30,” she said. “It makes me go, ‘God, I sure haven’t got much done.’ … He died at 29, and he wrote these songs.”
Williams‘ notebooks not only inspired his granddaughter, but an all-star cast of artists who put the country archetype’s unfinished lyrics to music for the new project “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.” Williams used to carry the notebooks in a battered old leather briefcase he always had with him, including at the time of his death just before or on Jan. 1, 1953, on the way to a show in West Virginia. His mother found a cache of material after his death as well. She turned the song fragments over to Williams‘ publisher, and they’ve sat in a vault for most of the ensuing decades, until producer Mary Martin came up with the idea for breathing life into them.
All participants were challenged to put Williams‘ words to music. Some added lyrics of their own to flesh out fragments, and all were responsible for their own melody and instrumentation. For the most part, the principals stick close to what they imagined the source material should have sounded like, but each brings something a little different.
Williams is joined by her father Hank Jr. on her contribution, “Blue is My Heart.” Mr. Dylan, his son Jakob, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Jack White, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow also cut songs for the long-simmering project, which Bob Dylan released this month on his Columbia Records imprint Egyptian Records, in association with the hall of fame.
Mr. Jackson delivers the closest homage with leadoff song “You’ve Been Lonesome, Too,” Miss Jones keeps it stripped down to acoustic guitar and harmony on “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” and Mr. Crowell and Mr. Gill lay down what sounds like a classic song coming out of the radio circa 1950 on “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears.”
Mr. Gill and Mr. Crowell frame part of their song as a spoken-word monologue, adding a classic feel.
“To say you wrote a song with Hank Williams, yeah, that’s pretty cool,” Mr. Gill said. “Rodney was the biggest part of that, of taking it and making it something special. You couldn’t envision that would ever happen. You wouldn’t think there’s a bunch of unfinished Hank Williams songs laying around and they’re going to be giving them to some folks who are kind of eccentric and talented, and have them finish them up.”
Martin’s original intention was for Williams fan Dylan to do a full album, but he eventually scuttled that plan. He spoke with Holly Williams about it around eight years ago, giving her a handful of copied lyrics while the two stood outside his tour bus.
“And you could tell it was a Hank song in an instant because of the way it was written,” she said. “I said, ‘These are Hank lyrics,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, they want me to do an album of these, but that’s a lot of pressure on me, so I may give them to a lot of different artists.’ I wanted to take them and run with them and read them, but he put them back on the bus.”
Two years later she got a call saying it was time to come pick up a few samples of what was available.
“I ran down to my publishing company and got the lyrics and spent two days soaking it up, like a lost ‘Harry Potter’ book or something,” she said. “I could not wait to get my hands on it.”
“Blue is My Heart” had just six lines when she picked it. She fleshed out the song lyrically and added a melody.