Hank Williams died at the age of 29, leaving behind what sometimes feels like half the American country music songbook. Listening to the recordings, I’m always struck: this is a young man’s voice singing an old man’s songs about loss and loneliness.
Spencer Bohren didn’t live through the history or the personal struggles that produced Williams’ songs, and his career in music has lasted longer than Williams’ life did. On The Blues According to Hank Williams, he’s mined the catalog for songs that fit traditional blues forms and recorded them with just voice and guitar, adding occasional pedal steel and mandolin overdubs. In that sense, he’s faithful to the earliest recordings of Williams, alone with his guitar.
Bohren claims the songs by going back to their roots. He practically invites comparison to the original, but Bohren’s approach to phrasing and tonal color demonstrates how well, and how intimately, he knows the material. He’s up to the challenge on “Ramblin’ Man,” when he practically growls the words. It sounds like the song was recorded in darkness to match its lyrical content: the singer is leaving his lover because that’s how he is, and he expects to come home dead if at all. In a year that also sees the remastered release of his very first album, Born in a Biscayne (1984), which is nearly as old as Hank Williams when he died, Spencer Bohren shows that he’s learned enough to sing an old man’s songs.