NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Hank Williams’ Life After Death

His "Lost Notebooks" Inspire Other Artists' Interpretations

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Hank Williams was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He has been the subject of many biographies. I wrote one of them myself and have read the others. But I will bet the majority of the other Hank biographers (at least the serious ones) would agree with me that there is room for more biographies of this man. And he was only 29 when he died.

His life story remains in many ways an unsolved puzzle. Some areas of his life are still sketchy. He read little, wrote little apart from his songs and left little in the way of any permanence.

Even many of his songs remain in question. He wrote many by himself. He obviously wrote other songs in collaboration with his mentor, the great songwriter and producer Fred Rose, the co-founder with Roy Acuff of Acuff-Rose Publishing, Nashville’s first publishing company and the anchor for Music City. But it has widely and very credibly posited that Rose wrote more than he has been credited with and that his contributions to the Hank Williams oeuvre are more major than has been acknowledged.

In my research, I found that Williams had also bought songs from other writers and put his name on them — which was a very common practice in those days. Willie Nelson sold the song “Family Bible” for $50. Even later, when Elvis Presley‘ manager Tom Parker wanted Elvis to record Dolly Parton‘s “I Will Always Love You,” he demanded co-writing credit and profits on the song for Elvis. Dolly refused.

Hank’s meager catalog of records released during his short lifetime has been regularly augmented by newly “discovered” material for years.

But perhaps the most intriguing release ever is The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, coming out on Oct. 4 on Bob Dylan‘s Egyptian Records label in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Columbia Records. Egyptian’s first release was a Jimmie Rodgers tribute in 1997.

If you were a painter and were asked to execute a painting based on a very rudimentary fragment of sketches by Picasso, would you do that? That is not so very different from being handed a photocopy of some scrawled words on notebook paper purportedly from the hand of Hank Williams and being asked to complete the song that Hank supposedly was writing. You have only a few words — no melody.

That’s the back story to The Lost Notebooks. Although the title actually refers to one particular lost notebook.

But where did this lost notebook or lost notebooks come from? The notebook has been alive in Hank lore for years. It was supposedly discovered in his battered leather briefcase in the trunk of his blue Cadillac when Hank was found dead in that car. Its first public appearance came in 2001, with handwritten song lyrics published in a book, Snapshots for the Lost Highway, which accompanied The Complete Hank Williams boxed set.

Then in 2006, two people were arrested in Nashville and charged with theft of the notebook. A cleaning person at the Sony/ATV (which had acquired Acuff Rose) publishing company claimed she found it in a dumpster. She allegedly sold it to a representative of the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame and Rock-n-Roll Roadshow. Charges against the two were later dropped when a judge ruled the janitor had indeed retrieved the notebook from the trash and had not stolen it.

It was returned to Sony/ATV and later offered to Sony artist Bob Dylan, supposedly for him to complete the songs. He later decided to contact other artists to finish and record the songs. In an interview with MTV in 2008, Jack White mentioned that Dylan had told him about the project and asked him to finish one Williams song.

When I was working on Music Row at Billboard, just up 17th Street (aka Music Row West) from Acuff-Rose, I got to know a couple of the Alley Rats in the neighborhood. These were guys who prowled up and down the alleys behind the record labels and publishing companies and other offices and who regularly rifled through their dumpsters and trash cans.

These two Alley Rats in particular recognized me from my picture next to my column in Billboard — which they read from copies of the magazine that they had scrounged from Billboard‘s dumpster. So I would often run into them in the alley, on my way to or from the parking garage behind our building. They made a living of sorts from sifting through Music Row’s detritus. They sold discarded CDs from the record labels’ dumpsters to Nashville’s used record stores. And often in large quantities. They found working cell phones and CD players in the trash, along with financial records, discarded demo tapes, written song lyrics and odd memorabilia. They told me that all kinds of “old stuff” was regularly thrown out. I was tempted to try dumpster diving myself.

In this context, it’s important to remember that what may turn out to be the most important recordings of Hank Williams’ career are his Mother’s Best live radio transcripts originally recorded on acetates. Those acetates were thrown out by radio station WSM and were salvaged from the garbage and later rediscovered and resurrected after years of garage storage.

So, my neighborhood Alley Rats didn’t find the Lost Notebook, but they were discovering occasional tidbits from Acuff-Rose. And they said there were stories circulating about more than one Hank Williams item of interest that had been garbage-surfed over the years. And they hinted of even more valuable record label treasure trove that had been taken and squirreled away. We will, I am sure, hear more about this.

For the record, the Lost Notebooks album is utterly fascinating. As it should be, populated by Hank song “completions” from Dylan himself, Alan Jackson, Norah Jones, Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, Jakob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Merle Haggard.

But you have to wonder (and I’m indebted to the Country California website for first mentioning this) that the one person on earth who most resembles and sounds like Hank Williams — his grandson Hank Williams III — does not appear anywhere on this project. In addition, Hank Williams Jr.‘s name does not appear in the project’s pre-release publicity or on the advance album. Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams is here, and I think I recognize Hank Jr.’s vocals behind her on “Blue Is My Heart.” But …

Hank III is not here. He told No Depression, “I wasn’t asked.” He added, “I hear that certain people might be completing unfinished songs, and that just doesn’t seem that right to me. … It just seems strange for somebody to be given that opportunity to say they’ve co-written a song with Hank Williams.”