Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
Leon Payne was just a lad—nearly 22—when he hit the road with Western swing bandleader Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1938. Payne, blind since boyhood, had taken up music as a vocation at Austin’s Texas School For The Blind, and as a teenager was already a regular on the radio. But he developed even more rapidly when he joined the Playboys, honing his smooth vocal style while writing his own songs about heartbreak and sin. By the end of the 1940s Payne had his own group, the Lone Star Buddies, and he was pumping out future country music standards like “I Love You Because,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me,” “You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart,” “Psycho,” “Blue Side Of Lonesome,” “Selfishness In Man,” and—most famously—“Lost Highway.”
Payne wrote and recorded “Lost Highway” in 1948, and at some point in the ensuing year a young up-and-comer named Hank Williams heard the song while on his usual touring circuit through Louisiana and Texas. He added it to his repertoire; and in the decades since, whenever other musicians have covered “Lost Highway” on stage, they’ve often referred to it as “that great Hank Williams number.” That’s not a mistake, necessarily. Williams’ 1949 recording popularized the song, and its confession of wantonness and desperation could’ve easily have been written by Hank—who cut many more records just like it before he died in 1953 at the age of 29.
In David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren’s Heartaches By The Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, the Williams version of “Lost Highway” lands at No. 2 on the list (just behind Sammi Smith’s recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”). Friskics-Warren explains:
This is the record that best embodies Hank Williams’ myth, especially among acolytes who see his death in the back of a Cadillac as country’s answer to the romantic fantasy of living fast, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse. Hank surely wasn’t thinking about his own myth when he first heard Leon Payne’s cautionary tale about the wages of sin; there wasn’t any Hank Williams myth to consider yet. Still, he must have sensed that song’s cry of spiritual and moral alienation prefigured his destiny.
Since Hank Williams borrowed one of his signature songs from someone else, it makes sense that so many artists over the past 60-plus years have borrowed from Hank. The battle for “authenticity” in country music has raged almost from the moment Williams died (if not before), and traditionalists have always looked to his music as a model for how country should sound, and what it should be about. Sometimes musicians have recorded “Lost Highway” to pay tribute to one of the greats, and sometimes it’s been an act of defiance, striking a blow for simplicity and realness during times when their beloved genre gets too crassly commercial.
Whatever the rationals for those performing it, Payne’s song has a directness that’s easy for anyone to claim. Type “Lost Highway” into YouTube, and aside from the footage from David Lynch’s movie, there are videos upon videos of people sitting with their guitars, quietly and meaningfully singing, “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost…” Sometimes the text below the clip credits Williams. But sometimes the person who made the video goes back to his or her first exposure to “Lost Highway,” tagging it as a song by Jeff Buckley or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The best-known acts who covered Payne were—like Payne himself—young when they sang “Lost Highway.” But there’s something about this song, with its sense of fatalism and regret, that sounds hard-won. It’s about someone who feels irredeemably wicked; and it’s usually sung with unnerving conviction.
Given that Williams’ “Lost Highway” is often mistaken for the original, fans might assume that Hank transformed Payne’s song in some fundamental way; but the changes are actually fairly subtle. Payne’s recording is beholden to his swing origins: It’s uptempo, and sung with a rueful smile. Williams’ instrumentation is similar, leaning on the same brisk strumming, moaning steel guitar, and sighing fiddles. But the best-known “Lost Highway” also slows the pace, and puts a bit of drag on the vocals. Williams would go even slower and sadder when he played the song live, burning in the impression that this is an anthem of sorrow.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, competition from rock ’n’ roll forced a minor crisis among country musicians, who could see that their genre was a clear progenitor of rock, but weren’t whether they wanted to claim the bastard. Some more forward-thinking country artists at the time came at the new styles by winding back through their shared pasts, paying tribute to roadhouse blues and honky tonk. Two of these four “Lost Highway”s rest comfortably between Nashville and Memphis. Skeets McDonald lays a little Chuck Berry guitar and Fats Domino piano under his version, while Elton Britt goes for deep Duane Eddy twang. Hank Thompson’s live performance, meanwhile, sounds like the slicker, softer “Vegas Cowboy” take on Western swing that it is, and Johnny Horton’s exemplifies the pop orchestrations and high-lonesome spareness that was typical of country radio at the time. All four are enjoyable, but played in succession they represent the philosophical/aesthetic divides that still run through C&W.
This isn’t a proper recording by Dylan and Baez, but rather a snippet from the documentary Don’t Look Back that finds them picking away at “Lost Highway” while hanging out together in a hotel room. Dylan has talked a lot over the years about how country music and early rock ’n’ roll were as much of an influence on him as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and here, shortly before embarking on his revolutionary string of “electric” records and Nashville exercises, he gave a hint of where he was headed. It’s not a great performance—he forgets the words, and kind of beats away ploddingly on his guitar—but it’s a rare glimpse of Dylan The Fan, not Dylan The Idol.
Having survived the rock ’n’ roll challenge, the country music industry boomed again at the end of the 1960s, drawing new fans from conservative middle Americans resisting the counterculture. Meanwhile, Music City itself began developing into the theme park version of Americana that Robert Altman and Joan Tewkesbury would satirize in their 1975 masterpiece Nashville. Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb were among the old guard stars stumping for that broader, more fan-friendly take on country, represented by their respective 1966 “Lost Highway”s. Both sound just fine, thanks in large part to Acuff’s and Tubb’s rich voices, and their accomplished backing musicians. But neither really qualifies as a personal reinterpretation of Leon Payne or Hank Williams. They’re more like museum pieces, putting one of country’s most important songs under glass.
After Dylan made country cool—followed closely by The Byrds, with their classic 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo—more and more rock acts started making the trip to Nashville, to work with the town’s unparalleled stable of session players and make their own paeans to the past. The hippie folkies in The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had the greatest commercial success, with their blockbuster triple-album Will The Circle Be Unbroken bringing some of the half-forgotten heroes of country and Western back into the studio, paying them proper respect. Leon Russell’s throwback LP Hank Wilson’s Back uses some of that same personnel, but while The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Lost Highway” has a fine homespun sound, Russell’s comes across as too laid back and too blunted by modern production. It’s the idea of classic country, but without the beating heart.
In the latter half of the 1970s, country music went through another upsurge in popularity, thanks to artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton crossing over to the pop charts. Meanwhile, enclaves of fading stars, acoustic traditionalists, and “outlaw” singer-songwriters were fighting for the spirit of Leon Payne and Hank Williams, for increasingly niche audiences. None of these three “Lost Highway”s would’ve gotten much radio play at the time, but all were made to appeal to subsets of old school country fans—the kind who still remembered June Carter’s pre-Johnny Cash husband Carl Smith, or turned up at small clubs to hear cult Chicago folkie Steve Goodman, or kept up with the arcane bluegrass and “newgrass” scenes that nurtured the Osborne Brothers.
As punk gave way to post-punk and New Wave, a handful of American and British bands capitalized on all the crossbreeding, working their own love of blues, folk, jazz, and country into a punk context. The Gun Club’s frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce courted controversy (at least within the insular scene he sprang from) for his appropriations of Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and Hank Williams; frankly his blues-punk wasn’t always successful. His goth “Lost Highway,” for example, is way too dreary. But Pierce had imagination and personality, and at least he makes an effort to break away from the many, many hidebound versions that preceded it. The Mekons though are more persuasive with the their own atonal, bashing take on the song. And Nashville’s own Jason And The Scorchers steamroll their peers with a whipcrack “Lost Highway” that’s both furious and appropriately melancholy.
Early in Jeff Buckley’s career—when he was still in his coffeehouse phase—he did a lot of covers, developing his own sound using other people’s words and melodies. His “Lost Highway” sounds more like “generic Jeff Buckley song” than like Payne/Williams, but no one could say that it lacks passion. It has all of Buckley’s usual dynamics, and a vocal performance that imbues each word with meaning.
Here are three “Lost Highway” versions by country legends, all adrift in an era when the genre was going through a lot of changes—simultaneously embracing old-fashioned “hat acts” as well as the newer arena-pop spin on country. “Three Hanks” is actually Hank Williams Jr., doing one of the decade’s hacky tribute albums, combining his voice with his late dad’s (and his son, Hank III). But the resulting “Lost Highway” comes out nice in spite of all the studio tomfoolery, even if it’s too brief. David Allan Coe’s version suffers from the blandness of its late 1990s production, though the prickly “no one really gets Hank like I do” intro has some contextual kick. As for Townes Van Zandt’s live performance—recorded not long before his death—it’s nowhere near as strong as the singer-songwriter’s best work, but it has a ragged minimalism that’s truer to the spirit of the song than anyone had gotten in a long time.
For the most part, actor Billy Bob Thornton’s debut album Private Radio is awkward and weird, but he actually does a good “Lost Highway,” reminiscent of the early 1960s versions that spoke to the folk and rockabilly crowds. Still, while his vocals are suitably warm, the highlight of this recording is the coda, where the various members of Thornton’s band trade licks, creating a semi-spooky “drifting through the stratosphere” feel.
Jazz-folk instrumentalist Bill Frisell stretches out his “Lost Highway” in ways few had attempted before (outside of maybe Billy Bob Thornton, in the coda to his version). For over ten minutes, Frisell and his band wind easily around Payne’s simple melody, creating pleasant vibrations that evoke the mood and meaning of the original—while also taking the journey off the road and into the wilderness.
Like a lot of graying musical legends in the 2000s, Jerry Lee Lewis has called on friends and well-wishers for support with his recording projects, hoping that duets albums would interest old fans and new. For 2006’s Last Man Standing, Lewis and 1970s blues-rock favorite Delaney Bramlett did a wonderfully loose “Lost Highway,” sounding a lot like two dudes just picking and plunking in the living room, commiserating about past mistakes.
As with Dylan and Baez’s “Lost Highway,” Tom Petty’s isn’t from an album but from a documentary: the 2007 Peter Bogdanovich film Runnin’ Down A Dream. Petty explains in the movie that he and The Heartbreakers were doing the song as a kind of warm-up, to remind themselves that they’re southern boys with a rich, regional musical heritage. Still, Petty has such the right voice for “Lost Highway”—at once wistful and weathered—that it’s surprising he’d never played it before Bogdanovich’s cameras rolled.
Kurt Nilsen is a Norwegian singer who won his country’s version of Pop Idol, and subsequently started incorporating elements of folk and country into his arena-filling Europop. He called in a ringer for his “Lost Highway,” getting Willie Nelson to kick off the song on a traditionalist note before joining in with his own interpretation—leaning more toward grand balladry. When the two approaches come together down the stretch, the results are unexpectedly moving.
Released on The Replacements’ reunion EP Songs For Slim—recorded to benefit ex-guitarist Slim Dunlap—this “Lost Highway” is far more Jason And The Scorchers than Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and it’s not as fiery as the ’Mats at their peak. But while it’s hardly revelatory, Paul Westerberg’s rowdy version of the song is well earned, benefiting from his own decades of experience on various wayward paths.
Ideal cover: If any of Williams’ studio or live versions counts as a “cover,” well… no one’s ever topped it. But given that most of the remakes have been adapting Hank, then the nod would have to go either to something akin to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (for the traditionalists) or to Jason And The Scorchers (for the re-inventors).
Ideal artist: Any number of contemporary alt-country and roots-rock acts could do justice to “Lost Highway,” from Jason Isbell to Sturgill Simpson. But what’s been missing from the song for all these years has been some R&B flavor—and maybe a woman’s touch. A jumped-up Janelle Monáe take on “Lost Highway” would be something to hear.