Consider this a public service. My gift to you, devoted readers. You will thank me! I’m offering a few precious moments of pure pleasure–one single song—that will take your mind off a world gone wrong. For all those starving for something to feel hopeful about.
Remember hope? So 2008. Still, if the song I want to recommend doesn’t do it for you, it can’t be done, you’re done for. We’re all done for. And maybe we are, maybe it’s too late. But if you have any really good memories (and I know you must), this song might help. It’s a shot of infectious lyrical dopamine to the withered pleasure center in the brain. I’m talking about Lucinda Williams’ cut on the just released Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams album, an eclectic collection of previously unrecorded Hank Williams songs, performed by artists like Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Jack White, Merle Haggard, and Sheryl Crow, to name a few.
They all do justice to the haunted, haunting spirit of the founding figure of country music and the lost highway he traveled. But Lucinda’s song is different, stands out in a special way. Lucinda covers a song called “I’m So Happy I Found You,” better expressed by the complete line that title appears in: “I’m cryin’ ’cause I’m so happy I found you.”
Got to be cryin’ in a great Hank Williams song; he’s the Meistersinger of male tears, the man who liberated the public display of male emotion (well, in certain circumscribed bar-room venues; others took it from there). But if you want old school country sadness, ol’ Hank is rivaled only by George Jones, with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (because he DIED).
Meanwhile, by the time Hank died he’d given us “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” and the ones that may not have tears in their titles but will put them in your eyes: “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Alone and Forsaken,” “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” and the immortal “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Well he didn’t—get out of this world alive, that is. After a string of 11 No. 1 hits, he made a fast exit at age 29 in 1953. Suffering from a painful bad back he died in the back seat of a car, apparently from morphine-induced heart failure while racing to make a gig over the frozen roads of the mid-South in the depths of winter. But he left behind a legacy that included Elvis and Dylan and Willie Nelson, and the tormented steel guitar soul of great country music. And he left behind something else few knew about for a long time.
That was “a scuffed, embroidered brown leather briefcase,” according to the liner notes in The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a briefcase with some unexpected contents. And that briefcase had a strange journey on its own lost highway for half a century before anyone made magic from what it contained: dozens of handwritten song lyrics, never set to music or recorded. When Bob Dylan heard about them he chose to set one of the songs to music (“The Love That Faded”). But he didn’t stop there.
In Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Volume One, the liner notes remind us, he wrote of Williams, “The sound of his voice went through me like an electric rod. … When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.”
When Dylan likes something, he can praise with the best of preachers praisin’ the lord. And so he decided to invite an elite group of other singer-songwriters to go through the lost notebooks and pick out lyrics to set to music, and the result is pretty amazing.
Though I’ve come to love country music, an underappreciated art in America, where smug critics make jokes about the song titles and that’s about all they know, I’d never been the biggest Hank Williams fan. I could appreciate those tearful songs, of course. But to me there was something cold and alien in the steel guitar twang in his voice—almost too purist for me—and then there were all those honky-tonk songs. I love the heartbreak, not the honky-tonkin’, in country music. I think the real rare and precious beauty of some country singers’ work is obscured by the honky-tonkin’ stuff.
But I got turned around by my Texas-born ex-wife, who introduced me to outlaw Texas country music (“Waylon and Willie and the boys”) which was my doorway into the whole wider country world. Her fave, which became my fave: Willie Nelson’s sublime classic, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
And she pointed out that line in the iconic “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” where Waylon or Willie sings about loving “Hank Williams pain songs” and I felt the reverence. Still, when it comes to country songs that pierce the heart, I tend to go for the girls who make the boys cry. I was hooked when I heard “Long Long Time,” Linda Ronstadt’s killer ballad. (“I think it’s gonna hurt me/ For a long, long time,” she sings.)
Rondstadt once told me that actors and actresses play the song in their trailers and dressing rooms when they have to cry in an upcoming scene.
Of course I’ve always loved Lucinda Williams’ work, and what guy in America who knows what’s what hasn’t been a little bit in love with Lucinda herself, certainly after that Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. The title song wasn’t even the best. “Metal Firecracker,” a masterpiece, was. (And yeah there’s “Sweet Old World” on the album of that title, the song she’s best known for, I think, but it’s a bit too mopey for me. I go for the purr and growl of her World Without Tears CD.)
And forgive my bringing this up, but one of my favorite things ever printed about me was the proposed linkage of me and Lucinda in this very publication, some dozen years ago by longtime columnist here, Mickey Kaus. I’m probably the only person in the world who remembers it, but he had this feature of his mostly political column, the “Yent-a-Matic” I think the feature was called, where he actually tried to play yenta and propose theoretical matches between writers and artists he felt were meant for each other. And one of the matches he proposed was between me and Lucinda, seeing as how she was the daughter of the poet laureate Miller Williams and I was, well, someone who, um, studied poetry at Yale. And loved country-music femme fatales.
But my heart was set, at the time, hopelessly, of course, on Rosanne Cash, though I also loved Emmylou, Joni, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, and Rickie Lee Jones too. And I was sure Lucinda had far more worthy suitors.
But now I’ve come to feel she doesn’t get the respect she deserves. She’s just kept getting better and better, so good she demands more recognition. Not just for this one cut on the Lost Notebooks CD, but for her amazing (relatively) new album Blessed, which is a killer.
What is it about her that makes her distinctive amidst a plethora of brilliant country-influenced singer-songwriters?
I think it’s got something to do with that sexy, husky growl-and-purr voice she deploys, so strong, so loving, and (sometimes) so bitter. And the strong emotional lyrics she’s so adept at.
There’s something about her that’s brave too. Try the title song on Blessed. The refrain is:
If you should ever wonder
You shouldn’t have to ask
‘Cause I know you know, brother
I’ve always got your back.
When I think of her, when I hear that song, I think of an incident from a long love affair. I had just come out of the hospital after an operation, was pretty shaky, and was crossing the street with my then-girlfriend on the night of St. Patrick’s Day when we crossed paths with a cluster of ugly, ratlike drunks who were looking for a fight and took offense at us, probably because they felt I didn’t deserve a woman so stunning. (I probably didn’t, I’ll admit it. But maybe I had other things to offer, like my sparkling personality.)
As they turned upon me, sensing my weakness, ready for a beatdown, she just took her place in front of me, glared at them and said something gentle but persuasive like, “Get the fuck out of our way!” And they did. I’ll never forget that. Like Lucinda sings, she had my back. I think the St. Pats rats sensed they were face to face with a lioness. And they were.
I somehow feel Lucinda’s like that. A lioness. Scary strong when roused. Or aroused.
So it was brave of Lucinda to choose this one upbeat song “I’m So Happy I Found You” on the Lost Notebooks CD. It was almost like facing down a crowd of her sad-faced fellow singers and saying, “Get out of my way; I want to show you something about Hank you might not have seen in all that teary beery stuff.”
And singers don’t often get credit for upbeat uplift; it’s not considered as “deep,” you know.
But true uplift can be deep, even spiritual. Sexy, too. It has to be strong. It has so much downbeat reality to struggle with, to transcend.
Here’s Hank’s first verse sung by Lucinda. It begins with tears, but not the conventional kind of tears:
The tears you see within my eyes
Don’t mean that I’m sad and blue.
No one has told me of your lies.
I’m cryin’ ’cause I’m so happy I found you.
That one ambiguous line—“No one has told me of your lies”—does NOT, I’m certain, mean he HAS lied, just that she’s not crying for the conventional Hank Williams cheatin’ heart reasons.
The song is a deep delight that will take your mind off the whole world going down the tubes. I hope you’ll feel the gratitude I do for the sublime moments of pleasure to be found in listening to it over and over and over again as I do. A pearl of great price: the kind of love song that MAY be better than being in love itself, because it will never die, although, true, it may remind you of love that did die.
But that’s OK! For a few brief blissful moments you will be back in love with the person who made you happiest when the two of you were happiest. Tell me that isn’t a gift.