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The contemporary country music legend who most resembles Hank Williams in spirit, genius, and style, Merle Haggard is part of the new recording which features modern stars turning unrecorded Hank Williams’ lyrics into new songs. Bob Dylan and Jack White have attracted an all-star cast to their project called ‘The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams’ which will be released this fall on October the 4th.

In addition to Haggard,  performers include  Dylan, White, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill,  Norah Jones, Rodney Crowell, Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless,  Sheryl Crow, and Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams.

Hank Williams’s mother Lillian Stone turned over the  box of 4 notebooks of lyrics written on pieces of paper which Hank had kept in a leather briefcase to Acuff Rose Publications in 1953 shortly after his death.

Here is the track listing for ‘The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams’:

  1. You’ve Been Lonesome, Too – Alan Jackson
  2. The Love That Faded  – Bob Dylan
  3. How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart?  – Norah Jones
  4. You Know That I Know – Jack White
  5. I’m So Happy I Found You  – Lucinda Williams
  6. I Hope You Shed a Million Tears – Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell
  7. You’re Through Fooling Me – Patty Loveless
  8. You’ll Never Again Be Mine – Levon Helm
  9. Blue Is My Heart – Holly Williams
  10. Oh, Mama, Come Home – Jakob Dylan
  11. Angel Mine – Sheryl Crow
  12. The Sermon on the Mount – Merle Haggard
This album will be released on Dylan’s Egyptian Records, and is the combined effort of Dylan, White, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and Columbia Records.
Because some of the lyrics are in a rough early  draft form, or not always clear, the artists have  added to them  or smoothed out some of the passages as well as creating melodies.
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What to do about that  insipid, heartless, watered down version of rock and roll that has taken over country music?

Not much I fear.

Marty Martel has written an essay on the survival of traditional country especially as it relates to the Grand Ole Opry and country radio. I guess a popular DJ at WSM has been sacked and the Opry itself has created ‘one hit wonder’ members who are part of the Nashville soft rock version of country. Martel’s essay was released through the Doug Davis’ County Music Classics email.

Hard to find any acts with a country music sensibility among today’s so called country music stars. Maybe an Emmy Lou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson sometimes have something going, but lets face it George Jones, Willie Nelson  and Merle Haggard are the last of the late golden age  of country music which could broadly be defined from 1945 to sometime in the mid to late 50’s.

And really Little Jimmy Dickens is the only surviving star that I know of from the real heart of that golden age when Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzel,  ruled the charts and concert stages. I know I have left out some names, but I’m just mentioning favorites and the first ones that come to mind.

 A real good definition of traditional country music or what is a traditional performer is hard to nail down. George Jones, for example, did quite a few pop sounding records in his career. Johnny Cash was pretty traditional but flirted with rock and pop in his early days. Not many remember, ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’.

Amplification was certainly part of traditional country, as were drums.

Finding a pure traditional country performer who is not bluegrass or a tribute artist is is pretty tough. You have to stretch the definition of traditional pretty thin to include even the alt country and so called purists who generally use a lot of amplification, drums and heavy rock beats.

I suppose traditional country could be defined as a form of folk music employing string instruments in simple musical forms which often feature a solo composer  singer who expresses heartfelt and sincere descriptions in love, religion, life and death,  and other philosophic concerns  and real life issues.

One of the difficulties I have in the attempting  to defend and protect traditional country is that in the case of this blogs subject, Hank Williams, a great deal of his influence on subsequent music history can be found, not in Nashville style country or so called traditional country, but in rock and roll.

Take the style, attitude, rhythms, and words of  Hank Williams’ songs such as ‘Mind Your own Business’, ‘Move it on Over’, ‘Honky Tonk Blues’, ‘Baby We’re Really In Love’,  and of course ‘Hey Good Lookin’  and trace their influence. Who would you find? Well, for starters, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and a host of other early rock stars.

Take Hank Williams solo ballads by the author or his alter ego Luke the Drifter, trace their influence and who would you find? James Taylor? John Denver? Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, a musician who refuses labels? Oh yea! Billy Joe Shaver too.

Sure Hank had a tremendous influence on more traditional country stars such as Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce, Stonewall Jackson, but if you want to look where Hank really lives, he lives in rock and roll.

The solitary lonely figure at the centre of a stage, projecting a soliloquy like singing recitation of the deepest feelings and thoughts of a character outside of himself was the creation of Hank Williams and survives today in all musical genres.   

The current project to record some Hank Williams’ lyrics is under the direction of Bob Dylan and Jack White. And fittingly so.

So as much as I sympathize with  those who bemoan the loss of traditional country music in the modern country music industry, I don’t see it accomplishing much. What we have to do is make people aware of great legacy of not only Hank Williams but a host of other country greats who have passed:Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters,  Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzel, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, Stonewall Jackson, Faron Young (a bit of a rocker in the Hank tradition) Patsy Cline, and we could go on and on.

Worrying about who’s on the Opry is a lost cause, and the Hall of Fame pretty much the same, and country radio.. If you wish to direct your attention in a worthwhile direction I would say the museums devoted to country and various artists which seem to do do a pretty good job.

Pop fans aren’t hearing too much Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee,  Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters either, so I guess it’s a universal problem.

I’m not expecting a new Hank or Lefty, Bing or Frank on the scene anytime soon.

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