Various Artists

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive: Hank Willliams Revisited

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This compilation of Hank Williams songs was not produced as a tribute record but as a transcultural document of Hank Williams' influence on popular music. There are none of the familiar covers of Williams songs here: no Ray Charles, no Johnny Cash, no Dolly Parton, no Social Distortion. Instead, the compilation moves across the musical landscape in a series of hard zigzags to come up with one of the greatest psychobilly albums of all time. Of the 23 songs here, only one of them can be counted as being done by a purely "country artist," and that's Charlie Rich's beautiful version of "You Win Again." There are a bunch of borderline characters, including Freddy Fender with a soulful reading of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You") and Dwight Yoakam with "Hey Good Lookin'." (The only reason this version couldn't be counted as "pure country" is because Yoakam performs a duet with Buckwheat Zydeco.) And then there's the real borderline, the dark edge where a song became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Townes Van Zandt's tortured rendering of "Lost Highway." It's true Williams didn't write the song, but it was one of his signature tunes, and in the wasted voice of Van Zandt -- already a ghost a year before he died -- it's chilling. But there is great soul and humor too. Al Green and Isaac Hayes do amazing -- and obviously completely reworked -- renditions of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)," respectively. Contrasting the Hayes and Fender versions is like moving through three worlds: Hank's, Fender's Tex-Mex universe, and Hayes' slick soul. The weird thing is, the song retains its message and emotional quotient in each reading. To make matters even weirder, Link Wray is on this record covering the same song with the guitars screaming. Moving on to the edges of the world where Hank walked and breathed and sang, there are versions of his tunes by acts he would never believe could have existed: Jad Fair, the Residents, the Mekons, Beasts of Bourbon, Hasil Adkins, Killdozer!? There are more dimensions to Hank Williams' enigmatic skeleton than one can fathom, let alone take in at once. This record will entertain you to be sure, but it will also frighten you, offend you, and make you laugh. That's worth the price of admission right there.

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