As Hank Williams' biographer Colin Escott says, "Lost Highway" is one of Hank's defining records, if not a defining moment in country music, which makes it ironic that it barely dented the charts on release and doubly ironic that it's not even one of Hank's songs".
Although he did not write the song, "Lost Highway" was a natural for Williams, the lyrics of the song sounding "like pages torn from his diary".
The song's lasting appeal is simple to grasp. Over the years, this tale of life on the road and sins' wages began to represent the glamorized idea of country stars and other creative types as drifters and renegades.
As I just said, Williams neither wrote nor first recorded "Lost Highway". Those honors went to lesser-known country singer-songwriter Leon Payne. Known for his stint playing at Jerry Irby's Houston nightclub, Payne's recording arrived in 1948 via the Nashville-based Bullet label.
In Dorothy Horstman's 1976 book "Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy", Leon Payne's wife Myrtie describes the circumstances in which he wrote the song: "In the early days of Leon's career, he hitchhiked from one place to another, finding jobs wherever he could," she said. "Once he was in California hitchhiking to Alba, Texas, to visit his sick mother. He was unable to get a ride and finally got help from the Salvation Army. It was while he was waiting for help that he wrote this song".
(o) Leon Payne (1948) (as "Lost Highway")
Recorded 1948 in Dallas, TX
Released on Bullet 670
More versions here:
But Leon Payne, on his turn, could have been inspired by the American variant of the traditional song "The Newry Highwayman".
This American variation was released by several artists under different titles, a.o. "Rude and Rambling Man", "Rake and Rambling Boy" and "The Rambling Boy" (btw not the Tom Paxton song)
The melody is almost identical to Leon Payne's "Lost Highway" and there are floating lyrics
SEE ALSO: Wild and Wicked Youth, The [Laws L12]
The first artists to record "Rude and Rambling Man" were the Carolina Tar Heels in 1929
(o) Carolina Tar Heels (1929) (as "Rude and Rambling Man")
Recorded April 3, 1929 in Camden, NJ
Released on Victor V-40077
Victor matrix BVE-51072. Rude and rambling man / Carolina Tar Heels - Discography of American Historical Recordings
Listen here: Rude and Rambling Man - Carolina Tar Heels.mp3
(c) The Carter Family (1944) (as "The Rambling Boy")
Recorded October 14, 1941 in New York
Released on Bluebird 33-0512
More versions here: Cover versions of Rude and Rambling Man by Carolina Tar Heels | SecondHandSongs
The same melody was also used in the 19th century murder ballad "Banks Of The Ohio"
SEE ALSO: Banks of the Ohio [Laws F5]
First recorded by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers
(o) Piedmont Log Rollers (1927) (as "Down On The Banks of The Ohio")
Recorded August 12, 1927 in Charlotte, NC
Released on Victor 35874
Victor matrix CVE-39799. Down on the banks of the Ohio / Red Patterson ; Piedmont Log Rollers - Discography of American Historical Recordings
More versions here:
And still another traditional using the same melody was "I'm On My Way to the Kingdom Land" or "I'm On My Way to Canaan's Land".
First recorded by Bo Weavil Jackson
(o) Bo Weavil Jackson (1926) (as "I'm On My Way To The Kingdom Land")
Recorded August 1926 in Chicago
Released on Paramount 12390
Bo Weavil Jackson – When The Saints Come Marching Home / I´m On My Way To The Kingdom Land (1926, Shellac) - Discogs
The Carter Family recorded all of the 3 precursors of the "Lost Highway" tune.
"The Ramling Boy" is already in this post (SEE ABOVE)
In 1930 the Carter Family recorded "On My Way to Canaan's Land"
Victor matrix BVE-64716. On my way to Canaan's land / Carter Family - Discography of American Historical Recordings
And in 1963 they recorded "The Banks of the Ohio" (with Johnny Cash)
Cover versions of The Banks of the Ohio by The Carter Family with Special Guest Johnny Cash | SecondHandSongs