True to his prediction, Hank Williams never got out of this world alive. But leave it to country's all-time monarch of misery, last heard on this mortal coil 58 years ago, to be responsible for the most delightfully despondent album of 2011.
Executive-produced by Bob Dylan, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams resurrects lyrics left behind by the country legend after his 1953 death and lends them to a dozen contemporary singer/songwriters, who completed and recorded them. The well-chosen cast of collaborators includes Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, Alan Jackson, Levon Helm, and Dylan himself -- all so lonesome they could cry, or die, or co-write across the great divide.
The compilation holds together with a remarkable consistency, since nearly all the performers opted to adopt sadder scraps from Williams' archives, and also because they all fitted them with pre-rock, hillbilly-baiting arrangements right out of the early '50s. Fiddles are plentiful, and this is the place this weekend -- not at a movie theater -- to find some real (pedal) steel.
Dylan wisely lets Alan Jackson -- whose place among Williams' descendants isn't hard for any country fan to figure -- kick off the wondrous gloom. If in your heart somehow you know you'll fail whate'er you do… If you have had each joy of life destroyed and cast away… If your soul has wilted like a rose that's never felt the dew... yes, you've been lonesome, too. They truly don't slit 'em -- er, write 'em -- like that any more.
The fatalism rarely lets up. Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell partner up for I Hope You Shed a Million Tears, with the former doing all of the singing and the latter interjecting some longer spoken-word recitatives, in the great melodramatic country tradition. I loved you like there's no tomorrow and found out that there's not, reads Crowell.
Naturally, it doesn't all sound as suicidal as it reads. Along with the loudest electric rhythm guitar on the album, Jack White brings a certain vengeful jauntiness to his accusatory tone in You Know That I Know. Patty Loveless, the brilliant mountain-music revivalist, sounds positively giddy in announcing You're Through Fooling Me.
Norah Jones' Western-style melody on How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart -- the arrangement of which owes as much to Willie Nelson as Williams -- achieves a sweet liftoff, even as it essays plummeting spirits. For his part, Dylan seems determined to get mourners out onto the dance floor with The Love That Faded, one of a half-dozen waltzes on the album (which, honestly, might be one or two too many).
A bare handful of happy tunes crop up, including Crow's heartfelt Angel Mine and Merle Haggard's The Sermon on the Mount, the sole example of the gospel lyrics Williams frequently sang under his Luke the Drifter pseudonym.
Lucinda Williams has traded sadness for celebration in her most recent work, so anyone aware of that development won't be surprised that her contribution, I'm So Happy I Found You, is the album's most rapturous song of devotion.
The lyrics here are particularly spare, and so is the solo-acoustic accompaniment, leaving plenty of room to worship Williams' vibrato in all its transfixing, emotive glory.
Labors of love don't get much less laborious or much lovelier. That lonesome whippoorwill Williams sang about? It still hasn't been put out of its misery, and thank God for that.