- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For many years, record company executives embellished hits compilations of Hank Williams Sr. with orchestras and choirs of background vocalists.

It was a misguided effort to make Williams, who died Jan. 1, 1953, more relevant to today's audiences.

They should have realized that songs such as "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" will never be outdated, so long as lovers betray each other and people wallow in depression.

Beck, Bob Dylan, Keb' Mo', Keith Richards and Johnny Cash understand. In some cases, their versions on the new Williams tribute album, "Timeless," are more rustic than the originals by Williams, which were recorded between 1947 and 1952.

"I could easily have gotten slick country singers of 2001 to make slick covers of Hank Williams tunes," says Luke Lewis, president of Mercury Nashville Records. "They would have lined up at the door to do it. But that wasn't what we were after."

Mr. Lewis, who made millions for Mercury as a force behind the career of pop-country superstar Shania Twain, started the Lost Highway subsidiary label named after a Williams' song to champion the rootsier side of country. Besides the tribute album, the label has released music by the band Whiskeytown, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and actor Billy Bob Thornton.

"Part of the agenda is to not make music with radio in mind," Mr. Lewis says. "I discovered Hank Williams from an obscure record by Leon Russell, 'Hank Wilson Strikes Back.' Part of my motivation is to try to do that again."

In his view, the artists on "Timeless" are singers and songwriters "who have a body of work that hopefully will be as timeless as Hank's work."

Also on the album are Adams, Sheryl Crow, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Hank's grandson Hank Williams III. Their approaches differ, except for an emphasis on the lyrics and avoidance of clutter.

Mr. Richards uses New Orleans-style horns to back his anguished vocals on "You Win Again." Beck cleverly arranges "Your Cheatin' Heart" with its lyrics about guilt making it hard to sleep as a lullaby.

Williams released some songs that didn't fit his usual honky-tonk music mode under the name Luke the Drifter. They were usually moral lessons, many times spoken rather than sung.

On "Timeless," Mr. Cash recites "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night," a sentimental ode to the trials of motherhood.

"Hank Williams has been an inspiration for me, as he has been for most country singers," Mr. Cash says. "This song is one of my favorites."

Lucinda Williams no relation to Hank slows the already mournful "Cold, Cold Heart" to a funeral dirge.

"I've been singing 'Cold, Cold Heart' ever since I remember, so it was an easy choice for me," she says. "Hank Williams' music influenced me profoundly when I was very young. This recording gave me a chance to contribute to his memory in my own individual way."

Williams was born into poverty Sept. 17, 1923, in Mount Olive, Ala. His family farmed strawberries, and his father worked as a logger before becoming ill.

Williams was born with a deformed spine, which caused him great pain and edged him toward alcohol as an escape.

He scored his first hit, "Move It on Over," in 1947, starting a five-year streak that established him as the prototypical tragic hero: brilliant, tortured and dead before 30.

The songs were sturdier than the man. Tony Bennett recorded "Cold, Cold Heart" while Williams was still alive, and Mercury has frequently released hits collections that sold well over the years.

"I don't want to say anything too bad about the people that came before me, but perhaps that catalog wasn't treated with the respect it deserved," Mr. Lewis says.

"We turned a corner with the box set ['The Complete Hank Williams' in 1998]. We spared no expense, and were not looking to make money. We were trying to break even at best.

"That package is something that will be around a hundred years from now. We've come a long way from those endless, cheap budget titles and repackages."

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