Various Artists

Sing Me a Hank Williams Song

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Given his immense impact on the sound and themes of modern country music, it is still startling to recall that Hank Williams' professional career barely lasted six years, and given his tabloid-like rock star (before rock stars were even invented) lifestyle, it is equally as startling to realize that he made nearly a hundred recordings between 1946 and his death in 1952, and somehow scratched out the time to write over a hundred songs, as well. And what songs! The best of them, like his immortal "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," are as precise as haikus, with an economy of melody and lyric that finds Williams freely incorporating pop and Tin Pan Alley techniques into his compositions, all the while recognizing sex, God, and death and the singular loneliness that each creates as his one true theme. Put simply, he was country's first truly modern songwriter, and by placing his own public persona at the center of his songs like a lightning rod, he became its first postmodern one, as well. It's interesting to hear the artists on this collection, Sing Me a Hank Williams Song, take on that singular voice in song after song, each bringing their own phrasing and tone to bear, but in the end, these are and remain Hank Williams songs, and he manages to speak like a recurrent ghost through all of them. Marty Robbins sings "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" here, and it isn't Robbins' loneliness one feels so much as Williams', and the song remains a perfectly balanced masterpiece where the human presence is distilled down to pure, free floating emotion. Patsy Cline's take on "Half as Much" is nearly as elegant, and she almost -- but only almost -- manages to kick Williams out of his own song and make it completely her own, a trick matched by Willie Nelson's version of "Cold, Cold Heart." Charley Pride's rendition of "Honky Tonk Blues" makes Pride seem like a stand-in for Williams, and even the patented Sun Records slap back echo on Johnny Cash's cover of "Hey Good Lookin'" can't keep Williams out of the mix. Don Gibson does keep Williams at bay for "Baby, We're Really in Love," but mostly because the tune is given a complete pop arrangement, underscoring how little distance there was between Nashville and Tin Pan Alley in a Hank Williams' song. In the end, this is a revealing set, proving once and for all that a Hank Williams song remains a Hank Williams song no matter who else is singing it. And don't forget, of the 66 original compositions Williams recorded in his lifetime, 37 of them were hits by his own hand. He could write them. He could sing them. He could have hits with them. He lived them.

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