"When Hank Williams died, he left behind a scuffed, embroidered brown leather briefcase. Like its owner, the briefcase appeared weathered beyond its years, yet it retained a dignified bearing that abuse couldn't erase."
So begin the liner notes for a new compilation titled The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Michael McCall, who wrote the notes, goes on to explain that the briefcase contained a stockpile of unreleased — and, in some cases, incomplete — music from the mind of the country legend, who died at 29 on New Year's Day 1953. His mother, Lilian Stone, discovered even more of his notes in a cardboard box in his room.
"She took that box and called [Williams' publisher] Acuff-Rose and said, 'We have these songs — what should I do with them?' " McCall says. "And they said, 'Send them to us. They're largely our property, and we'll take care of them.' And they kept them in locked vaults to make sure they were cared for the way they should be."
The catalog was sold several times over the years and eventually came to the attention of producer Mary Martin. Now, Martin has organized an all-star cast to finish some of those lost songs and record them. Bob Dylan, a Hank Williams superfan, was one of the first artists she approached.
"At that time, the idea was to have one particular brave singer-songwriter view the lyrics and choose 12," Martin says. "Bob Dylan held those lyrics for over a year and a half, and I do believe that it was too mighty a task. So he suggested that he would do one, and then we decided it should be a compilation record."
Martin says it was important to her that the participants be songwriters, not simply arrangers or interpreters. The roster of talent on the disc includes Jack White, Alan Jackson, Norah Jones and many others. One standout is "Blue Is My Heart," which was recorded by Holly Williams — Hank's granddaughter.
"I think she really discovered a lot about herself, and I think she gained a huge appreciation for who her granddad was," Martin says. "She worked so, so very diligently to get it right."
RACHEL MARTIN, Host:
Time now for music and new material written by a country legend who died almost 60 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A LONG GONE DADDY")
HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'm leaving now. I'm a long gone daddy, I don't need you anyhow.
MARTIN: Hank Williams was found dead on New Year's Day, 1953, in the back seat of his Cadillac. He was just 29 years old, a drinker with a bad back and a weakness for morphine. But he'd already redefined the sound of country music, and his contributions to that music wouldn't end at his funeral.
MICHAEL MCCALL: When Hank Williams died, he left behind a scuffed, embroidered brown leather briefcase. Like its owner, the briefcase appeared weathered beyond its years, yet it retained a dignified bearing that abuse couldn't erase.
MARTIN: That's Michael McCall. He's the writer-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame. And in that briefcase he mentioned was a treasure trove of unreleased - and in some cases, incomplete - music from the mind of Hank Williams. Hank's mother discovered even more in a cardboard box in his bedroom.
MCCALL: So she took that box and called Acuff-Rose and said: We have these songs. What should I do with them? And they said: Well, you know, send them to us. They're partially our property, and we'll take care of them...
MARTIN: Acuff-Rose is the publishing company.
MARTIN: The papers were then sealed in a vault and left undisturbed for years. That is until Acuff-Rose sold the Hank Williams archive to another company, and that company turned around and sold it again.
MCCALL: At some point, two of the notebooks had disappeared and they hadn't realized they were gone until a news story came up saying that, you know, two country music collectors had found these notebooks.
MARTIN: So had they been stolen?
MCCALL: Well, you know, it's a tricky story because of the court case, you know. In the end, the notebooks were given back with an agreement that they wouldn't press charges. But there was, I think, a cleaning woman who was involved.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEALTH WON'T SAVE YOUR SOUL")
WILLIAMS: (Singing) So selfish are we for silver and gold.
MARTIN: Those unfinished Hank Williams songs stayed silent for nearly six decades. Only now are some of them being heard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE BEEN LONESOME TOO")
ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) If your soul has wilted like a rose that's never felt the dew. You're traveling on the street of grief, yes, you've been lonesome too.
MARTIN: Veteran music insider Mary Martin organized an all-star cast to finish some of those lost songs and record them. This one's by Alan Jackson. The new album is called "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams." Mary Martin started the project 10 years ago. And the one singer she knew she had to involve was long-time Hank Williams fan Bob Dylan.
MARY MARTIN: I've known Bob for quite a few years. And so I went about the business of collecting all of the lyrics. Bob, I think, probably got about 30 lyrics, because at that time, the idea was to have one particular brave singer-songwriter view the lyrics and choose 12. Well, Bob Dylan held those lyrics for over a year and a half, and I do believe that it was too mighty a task even for the fabulous Bob Dylan. So he suggested that he would do one, and then we decided it should be a compilation record.
MARTIN: Bob Dylan's contribution is a song that's called "The Love That Faded." Let's hear a little bit of that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LOVE THAT FADED")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Brown eyes, blue eyes, they're all the same. None are for me. I've lost this game. Tomorrow holds nothing but worries and cares. The love that faded left me only tears...
MARTIN: What state were these songs in? How complete were they?
MARTIN: They never had melodies attached to them. Some were more complete than others, and some were just barely stanzas. Probably one of the best complete lyrics was the lyric that Jack White chose.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU KNOW THAT I KNOW")
JACK WHITE: (Singing) Now, you know that I know that you ain't no good. And you wouldn't tell the truth, even if you could...
MCCALL: The Jack White song, "You Know That I Know," sounds just like Hank but it's really mean in a funny kind of way. And it has humor to it, you know, but it's - Jack has said he was surprised that Hank didn't record it because it's such a well-written song and such a powerful one.
MARTIN: Michael McCall, do we know why Hank Williams never recorded those songs? I mean, were these just works in progress or did he think that in some way they just didn't meet the bar?
MCCALL: Yeah, we'd have to guess at that. But, you know, certainly, because he died at 29, he may have, you know, planned on recording some of these songs for all we know. You know, even in 1952 in his last recordings, he was pulling out songs he'd written in the late '40s.
MARTIN: Michael McCall, you know Hank Williams' writing quite well. Is there a song on this compilation that surprised you?
MCCALL: You know, "Angel Mine" is certainly a beautiful song and a very tender song. It sounds like it's written, you know, for somebody in love with her child.
MARTIN: That's the Sheryl Crow song?
MCCALL: That's the Sheryl Crow song. And I think with her being a new mother, she may have chose that song because of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGEL MINE")
SHERYL CROW: (Singing) I just want to live and love you. Always be your clinging vine. There could never be another sweet as you, angel mine. There could never be another as sweet as you, angel mine.
MARTIN: Now, we should note here there's a family musical legacy that lives on today in that Williams family. Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III are both accomplished recording artists themselves. But the Williams family is represented on this album by Holly Williams. She sings a song "Blue Is My Heart."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE IS MY HEART")
HOLLY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Blue is my heart, blue as the sky. Memories of you, they're making me cry...
MARTIN: Mary, what did she bring to her grandfather's work?
MARTIN: Well, I think she really discovered a lot about herself, and I think she gained a huge appreciation for who her granddad was. And I think she worked so, so very diligently to get it right. She wrote the bridge of that song, and that made it a really fine Hank Williams-Holly Williams song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE IS MY HEART")
WILLIAMS: (Singing) Flowers stopped bloomin', field used to be green. Your love's just a memory gone like the spring. Lord, come and take me away, I'm so blue every day...
MARTIN: Mary Martin is the producer of "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," and Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame wrote the album's liner notes. You can hear more music from the record at our website, nprmusic.org. Mary and Michael, thanks very much for being with us.
MARTIN: You're most welcome.
MCCALL: Oh, thank you. It's been great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEART?")
NORAH JONES: (Singing) Time after time, you've proven untrue, leaving me home to cry over you. Each time you come back, you say I'm your sweetheart, but how many times have you broken my heart? Night after night...
MARTIN: And for Saturday, that is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday nights. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.