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 principles 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." 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.
Jackson delivers the closest homage with leadoff song "You've Been Lonesome, Too," Jones keeps it stripped down to acoustic guitar and harmony on "How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart," and Crowell and Gill lay down what sounds like a classic song coming out of the radio circa 1950 on "I Hope You Shed a Million Tears."
Gill and 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," 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 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.
"I hope that you can't tell when he stopped writing and when I started writing it because it was exactly half," she said.
Her father, Hank Jr., makes an appearance on her song. But that's about all he has to do with the album. Asked what he thought of the project, he said: "Yeah, yeah, it's different. Some of it's OK, some of it's not. It's all right."
Asked if he had a favorite song, he pointed to the entries from his daughter and Jackson.
"That's probably the best two on there," he said. "I wasn't really contacted about it at all. Let me tell you, if you don't need me, go ahead, rock on, brother."
Holly Williams is extremely pleased with the project, though. She thinks it provides a chance for a new generation of fans to access the music of her grandfather in a meaningful way.
Williams combined lonesome country sounds with the blues and other influences from his childhood in Alabama to revolutionize country music with universal themes almost anyone can identify with. He sold his first song at 19 and went on to record timeless classics like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." His hard-living lifestyle and his tragic early death helped ensure his place as an American icon.
Combined with recently unearthed material on the new collection "The Legend Begins" and last year's "The Complete Mother's Best Recordings," there is a new sense of discovery swirling around Williams in the 21st century.
"I feel like ('Lost Notebooks') is just going to open a door where people say, if Jack White or Norah Jones or Lucinda love this, maybe I should check it out," Holly Williams said.
AP writer Caitlin R. King in Nashville contributed to this report.