“Further into Songs” is a PHW feature that traces the roots and inspirations behind some of my favorite songs I’ve featured on this blog. The best part is the thoughts come directly from the artists themselves.
Chris Kiehne has released two endlessly listenable folk albums this year. The first was a collection of gorgeous zombie-inspired originals called Pray for Daylight which sort of plays out like The Walking Dead meets Our Endless Numbered Days. The second has an even stranger premise – A Widower’s Kind features re-imaginings of 10 Hank Williams’ songs. Recorded in a two week burst of creativity, the album takes some of Williams’ most morbid songs (his words) and updates them with newly added lyrics and themes – about a 50/50 split according to Kiehne. Though it might seem like sacrilege to change such classic material, he makes it work beautifully, and, below, adamantly defends his right to attempt something so severely uncommon:
I’ve wanted to undertake a project like A Widower’s Kind since I first heard Hank’s song, “The Angel of Death.” This would have been sometime late in my high school career, when I first picked up The Complete Hank Williams. “The Angel of Death” led me to sort of unconsciously internalize this sub-category of Hank songs, these overtly mournful, spiritual songs about death and loss that he’d written and never properly recorded or released. How or why exactly I was so suddenly moved to rewrite them all decade later (I wrote and recorded A Widower’s Kind in like two weeks, which, for me, is bafflingly quick) is a mystery. The writing process was pretty effortless; I wanted to amplify the senses of loss, mourning, and resigned loneliness in the songs, and I wanted to minimize (for the sake of some narrative complexity) the overtly Christian “escape-routes.” At the risk of walking directly into a semantic minefield, I’ll say that I don’t tend to consider any songs or texts or anything inviolably sacred. So, while I can’t exactly imagine anyone actually improving upon “Famous Blue Raincoat” or “Surf’s Up,” that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they should try. If narrative theft and revision was a legitimate creative exercise for Will Shakespeare, it’s good for me. And that is my official stance on why I would ever attempt to disassemble and rewrite ten of my favorite Hank Williams songs.
I read a pull-quote recently from someone involved with the “Hank Meets Mermaid Avenue” project that Dylan is spearheading, and it’s essential articulation was, “How could I ever claim to have co-written a song with the incomparable Hank Williams?” I’ve spent some time thinking about that – and about my own outrageous presumptuousness for claiming exactly that – and while I appreciate the artist’s earnestness I clearly don’t share it. To me, this whole process of writing songs or stories or drawing dog portraits or whatever it is you do, it’s about contributing to and propagating a lineage. The whole process is genealogical, not divine. You participate in a dialogue with a song or a book or a painting and then you respond to it. The influence of whatever document is internalized and then rearticulated and modified and that’s where the progress comes from. There’s not a shot in hell I’d be writing anything except Friday the 13th fan-fiction had I never read Shakespeare, John Cheever, Nabokov, whoever. I incriminate those dudes with direct responsibility for everything I produce. And if I didn’t believe that country singers hadn’t elevated the art of lyricism and song-craft in that half-century since Hank’s death – that people like Willie and Merle and Dolly and Keith and Gram Parsons and Gene Clark hadn’t called the corners and channeled Hank’s ghost and pushed the enterprise forward – then I wouldn’t be too optimistic about this whole business of writing songs.
What is sacred is Hank’s voice. That thing is a celestial weapon; it’s not going anywhere. Song-craft and production and technical limitations, these things are plastic and evolving. But people are still just mostly people and our internal cords, our guts, the emotional landscapes that we stumble across, I don’t think they’re much different than they’ve ever been. Hank’s gift was that he had this voice that bypasses all intellectual or critical circuitry and death-grips those unchanging gut-cords and just rips them apart. I don’t think I’m going to irremediably ruin any of Hank’s songs by rewriting his words. I actually think I’ve improved a couple. But I’ll save anybody who thinks they can outperform Hank the trouble: nopers.
It was thinking about Hank’s voice that most directly influenced (and altered) A Widower’s Kind. I tend to be a pretty unreasonable perfectionist when I record, which is a sad thing. I feel like I too-often inadvertently sterilize what might otherwise resemble a song with some vibrancy. I had recorded most of a sort of proto-Widower’s Kind, cleanly, multi-tracked with folk instrumentation and arrangements, but the more I listened to that version of the album, and the more I listened to Hank’s own versions of the songs I was modifying, the more frustrated I became, because the Widower’s Kind I had recorded just didn’t seem to have anything to do with those parts of Hank that I admire and envy, the expressiveness of his voice and it’s capacity to instantaneously create and embolden the subtext of a song. So, with a little help from Old Overholt, I scrapped the initial version, sang the tunes live into GarageBand (I still regret not using the old analog Tascam, but it’s at my parents’ house in Baltimore), and called it done. My voice obviously isn’t quite a billionth of the instrument that Hank’s was. But, still, this was the first time on record I’d ever really focused on it, focused on singing as an expressive act, focused on trying to express that subtext. Generally, I’m of the Bill Callahan approach: get the words across, and do it plainly. The words matter. But while I recorded Widower’s Kind, for the first time, I did it with a complete disregard for the text itself. I think it’s the best my voice has sounded on record, and I’m happy with that. It was ultimately that decision that transformed this thing – which otherwise was really just a creative exercise to keep limber – into something that I’m pretty proud of, something that I hope might do some gut-cord ripping of its own.
MP3 :: My Sweet Love Ain’t Around
(from A Widower’s Kind. Download here)