• Analyze the harmony to five versions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
• Learn how to put your own stamp on a popular song.
• Understand how to create new variations of a simple chord structure.
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“I’m gonna sing a song that’s probably the saddest song I ever heard,” said Elvis Presley on his Aloha from Hawaiispecial, and with that, the band kicked into Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” If it’s the saddest song Elvis ever heard, he might have even made it sadder with his rendition, which was slower and more dramatic than the original.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is a classic piece of the American songbook. It was first released by Williams in 1949 as the B-side of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and since then it has been covered by countless artists across genres, including country singer BJ Thomas, rock ’n’ rollers Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, soul singer Al Green, jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield, and even famed NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
A big part of what makes the song so interesting to cover are its masterfully written lyrics that manage to capture a universal part of the human condition. But just as potent as the lyrics is its simple, timeless melody, which has allowed the song to work so effectively in a variety of genres, and its sparse chord progression, which leaves plenty of room for artists to put their own stamp on the song.
For this lesson, we’ll be looking at a few chord progressions that different musicians have used in their interpretations of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This isn’t just a lesson in how to play the song, but more importantly, a guide to reworking a simple set of chords to create fresh harmony.
First, let’s take a listen to the original.
Hank Williams sings the song in E major, but for ease of comparison between examples, I’ve put most of the versions here in G major, where it fits really nicely on the guitar. Ex. 1shows the chord progression used by Williams in the key of G. It’s a 16-measure I–IV–V progression in 3/4 that basically looks like a 12-bar blues, but with an extra four measures up front and an extra I chord in the first measure of the final line.
The chord progression most often used in cover versions, with some slight alterations, is shown in Ex. 2. The most significant thing about this set of chords is the way the first two lines feature movement in the I chord from G to Gmaj7 to G6 and back, which can be done in the bass—as in BJ Thomas’ version—or, more commonly, in the middle or top of the chord voicing.
The chords here are taken directly from the version recorded by Elvis Presley shown below. In the third line, the IV chord (C) is followed by a IVm chord (Cm), which then returns to the I chord (G), followed by a VIm (Em). This line thematically follows the chords from the first half of the progression by continuing to change on the downbeat of each measure.