Mar 292013

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

One day in 1949, Hank Williams passed a scrap of paper to fellow songwriter Jimmy Rule and asked, “Do you think people will understand what I’m trying to say when I say this?” Rule took one look at what was on the paper and told Williams not to worry. With good reason – he had just read a verse from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a song that Elvis Presley would later call “probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard.”

Since its release, “Lonesome” has become the Mount Everest of country and western songs, towering over any and all others – and like Everest, many have been drawn to scale it because it was there. Not just country singers, either, as we shall see…

Carla Thomas – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)

Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul, recorded her cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” for her 1966 Carla album. The song’s honky-tonk roots are buried soul deep in rich earth, and Thomas’s slow, sad vocal leaves no doubt that the rain is coming in again. This version of “Lonesome” was always destined to grow big and strong.

Al Green – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)

Al Green’s Call Me is one of the best soul records of the ’70s – in fact, it’s one of the best records of the ’70s, period. In addition to hits like “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and the title track, Green does wonders with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” making it so silky smooth it nearly dissolves – but he never forgets the pain inherent in the sorrow, no matter how attractively he packages it.

Cassandra Wilson – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)

Cassandra Wilson gets filed under “jazz” because there isn’t any “melting pot” category. Growing up in the South, she absorbed all kinds of musics, and as she said, “I never drew the line between what Hank Williams does – you know, his artistry – and what BB King does.” That allows her to come up with a cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that’s truly ravishing in its beauty.

Little Richard – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)

By the 1970s, Little Richard’s music wasn’t connecting with the kids the way it used to, but you couldn’t blame that on lack of effort. 1971’s King of Rock and Roll found the perennial comeback kid covering some more contemporary music – it’s fun to think of Mick Jagger learning about the cover of “Brown Sugar” found here – and giving “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” an impassioned soulful reading that proved to anyone with open ears that a master still moved among them, whether they realized it or not.

Rick Holmstrom- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)

When people compare somebody to their father, it’s usually meant as an honor. When it’s Mavis Staples saying that someone “reminds me of my Pops,” that honor increases tenfold. That’s how she described her guitarist Rick Holmstrom, whose playing has been steeped in the blues and come out awfully strong. His 2012 release Cruel Sunrise is available in a deluxe edition, which features a dozen instrumentals, mostly classic R&B and gospel songs; here, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (w)rings out all the emotion of the original, even with none of the lyrics. has some great Hank Williams material – in music, film, and book divisions.

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