Not every tribute album works, but I'm happy to report that this one does. Hank Williams stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Woody Guthrie at the fountainhead of American folk music. (I consider country music from Hank's day -- well before the Nashville machine slicked it up -- as authentic folk music.) These contemporary artists obviously love the songs, and for the most part honor them with their affectionate renditions. The arrangements vary, of course, but not radically; the album has a remarkably cohesive feel even with all the different parties involved.
Perhaps the most adventurous tracks are Beck's "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Mark Knopfler's "Lost on the River," which in both feature subtly complex arrangements, and Emmylou Harris's "Alone and Forsaken," which she makes sound like a traditional Childe ballad (it gives me goosebumps). The most easily authoritative performances are Johnny Cash, "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night" (the spoken narrative here is perfect), Dylan's easygoing "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind," and Keb' Mo's sweet country blues treatment of "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry." Hank III delivers a cheerfully honky-tonk "I'm a Long Gone Daddy," and Tom Petty offers a raucous "You're Gonna Change (or I'm Gonna Leave)."
The only track that just doesn't work is Ryan Adams' "Lovesick Blues" -- his heart's in the right place, but the Jell-O just doesn't jell. Some listeners may find Keith Richards' croaking of "You Win Again" a bit painful, but I have to admit I like it.
A special word for the ladies. Besides Emmylou's tour de force, Lucinda Williams brings "Cold, Cold Heart" vividly to life, and Sheryl Crow is terrific on "Long Gone Lonesome Blues."
Simple, clean-textured sound makes it easy to roll through this delightful collection. While you're listening, look through the nicely designed booklet for some great photos. Of course, everybody should know Hank's originals -- he was a great singer -- and most of the songs are available on one Williams CD collection or another. But it's easy to see why there's a thank-you from the Williams family on the back cover -- I'm grateful for this collection too. I would not trade the songs for everything Garth Brooks has ever written.