If anyone deserves a tribute album, it's Hank Williams, who died on January 1, 1953, in the back of his chauffeured Cadillac touring car, on the way to a one-nighter in Canton, Ohio. He was just 29 years old, yet he had created a body of work that set the gold standard for country music. Honest, direct and confessional, Williams's songs were gut-wrenching glimpses at the troubled life of a man caught between sin and salvation.
In other words, the music of Hank Williams has virtually nothing to do with the stuff you hear these days on mainstream country radio. Someone like Toby Keith wouldn't be caught dead doing one of Hank's songs; Bob Dylan, on the other hand, might very well do an entire album's worth. That's how far contemporary country music has strayed from its roots.
Dylan, in fact, kicks off Timeless with a spirited version of Williams's "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind." It's a gem -- and a hard act to follow. Sheryl Crow does her best with "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," but she sure does sound a lot like Maria Muldaur.
More successful is Mark Knopfler's spare version of "Lost on the River," which contains some of Hank's darkest lyrics ("Lost on the river, dark is the night/Just like the blind, praying for sight/Drifting alone, heart filled with strife/I'm lost on the river, the river of life"). Other hits are Emmylou Harris's folky "Alone and Forsaken," Keith Richards's Memphis-meets-Nashville "You Win Again," and Tom Petty's hard-country "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)." Hank Williams III doesn't stray far from the original version of "I'm a Long Gone Daddy," but given that he's the grandson of Hank Williams, he can do whatever he damn well pleases.
Tribute albums always have their weak cuts, and Timeless has its share. Keb' Mo' tries too hard to make "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" sound contemporary, but it's forced. Beck sounds like he's about to nod off while doing "Your Cheatin' Heart." (It's more about Beck than Hank.) Ryan Adams fumbles his way through "Lovesick Blues," and Lucinda Williams does "Cold, Cold Heart" -- a too-obvious choice for her -- at glacial speed. Never has a CD player's programming feature been more useful.
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Timeless ends on the right note, however: Johnny Cash's perfect rendering of "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night," a weepy "recitation" song that Williams recorded under the Luke the Drifter moniker. It's sappy, sentimental...and wonderful. Cash keeps things simple and plays it straight, and he blows everyone else out of the water in the process.