Tribute albums offer performers the opportunity to reinterpret predecessors -- improving on, offering homages to or ruining what has come before. The most recent Hank Williams tribute, Timeless, has the first two but mercifully no huge mistakes (think U2's abysmal reggae rendition of Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"). The album spotlights Williams as a songwriter, not just a mythmaker, and features artists known for having written a song or two themselves.
On the opening track, "I Can't Get You Off of My Mind," Bob Dylan sounds as if he's actually having fun (the accordion doesn't hurt) and adds his inimitable crustiness to a honky-tonk number originally recorded when Williams was a scant 23. The only other tune to approach buoyancy (not one of Williams' defining features) is Tom Petty's "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," a real hoot because Petty's nasal whine hits the high end nearly as well as Williams'. Although no one can yodel like Williams, Sheryl Crow gives it a shot on a cleanly arranged version of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues." Offering interesting if not earth-shattering interpretations of Williams' characteristic ennui, Beck's "Your Cheatin' Heart" makes a lullaby out of a man's heartache-induced insomnia, and Ryan Adams turns "Lovesick Blues" into a lo-fi landscape. Lucinda Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" extends Hank's maudlin lyrics to a bathetic extreme, a redundancy given Williams' lack of subtlety. Her hoarse vocals quiveringly lament the impossibility of love, but she ups the lyrical ante too much. It comes as no surprise that Hank III offers the best twang, seeing as how his likeness to the grandpap he never knew is uncanny, nor that Keith Richards' vocals are the record's weakest link, though his version of "You Win Again" adds a ragged, loose tetchedness that the younger contributors can't pull off.
The soulful rendition of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is the best track, with Keb' Mo' drawing out new valences and imbuing his blues idiom with the sounds of spirituals from the last century. Clearly the only one of this group who could adapt one of Luke the Drifter's moral lessons, Johnny Cash gets the final word, reciting "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night" in his well-worn voice, making the performance -- and, for a moment, the song -- his own.