Proving His Place
Hank Williams, Sr. and Hank Williams, Jr. Like father, like son?
Well, yes and no.
Hank, Sr. accomplished a lot in his short life. The “hillbilly Shakespeare” transformed country music. He wrote songs that have transcended time and record charts — songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that can still silence a crowd and bring a tear to the eye. He left some big boots to fill and a legacy no one could replicate.
Hank, Jr., however, has taken his daddy’s legacy to a whole new level.
Randall Hank Williams, Jr. wrestled with the ghost of his father for years. Everyone, including his mother, Audrey, worked to mold him into a miniature version of his daddy and for 20 years he struggled, uncomfortably, to break free.
Hank, Jr., was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on May 26, 1949. A month later, his father made his Grand Ole Opry debut, singing “Lovesick Blues” and drawing six encores.
Williams nicknamed his son “Bocephus” after comedian Rod Brasfield’s ventriloquist dummy, and while he spent much of his time performing for fans, he ended every radio performance the same way, with a heartfelt message for his boy, “Don’t worry, Bocephus, I’m coming home.”
But Williams only had 3 1/2 years with his son and in January of 1953, at the age of 29, he didn’t come home.
Williams had to learn about his daddy from books and photos and other people’s stories.
Growing up with only the legend and not the man, Hank, Jr. squealed for a guitar of his own and at age 8, he made his musical debut, dressed in a black suit for a Swainsboro, Georgia, show, singing his father’s songs to wild applause.
At nine, he was touring in earnest with his mother’s Caravan of Stars. He never had much say in the way of a career choice. The choice wasn’t whether he’d sing, but what, how and why.
“Other kids could play cowboys and Indians and imagine that they’d grow up to be cowboys,” he wrote in his Living Proof autobiography. “I couldn’t do that. I knew that I would never grow up to be a cowboy or a fireman or the president of the United States. I knew I’d grow up to be a singer. That’s all there ever was, the only option, from the beginning.”
Raised in Nashville, Hank, Jr. learned music from the finest of teachers. Earl Scruggs gave him banjo lessons, and Jerry Lee Lewis showed him piano licks. And with rock ‘n’ roll in full flower, Hank, Jr. began playing a lot of electric guitar, not on stage though, where he did Hank Williams’ songs, in his daddy’s style.
At age 11, he made his own Opry debut, walking across the same wooden boards his father had walked, and, just like his father, singing “Lovesick Blues” and encoring.
He was definitely following in Hank, Sr.’s footsteps. Hank, Jr. was on a collision course with the “family tradition” of self-destruction, just like his daddy.
“I went on the road when I was eight years old, and when I turned 15, I was stealing the show,” he wrote, accurately, in his 1987 No. 1 single, “Born To Boogie.” And after stealing the show, he was often offered the drinks and pills that were so prevalent among country performers and that had killed his father. Often as not, as was tradition, he accepted the offers.
He’d also accepted a $300,000-per-year recording contract, and at 15 his version of his father’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” climbed to No. 5 on the country singles chart.
That shadow grew darker, as Hank, Jr. entered his 20s. The fans that came to see him on the road wanted, and expected, him to do his father’s songs, his father’s way. Yet he yearned to explore the musical changes that were happening in the early 1970s, the melding of country, blues and rock that made the music of Waylon Jennings and the Marshall Tucker Band so distinct.
It was “an endless nightmare of bars and shows, of sick mornings and stoned nights and big chunks of time where there are no memories at all. Of Jim Beam and cheery, multi-colored pills, and strange girls with vacant eyes,” he later wrote of that period in his life.
Hitting rock bottom and giving in to the demons seemed like his only way out.
“I just felt all this loneliness and depression,” he said. “I was all tore up about the direction I was heading. Every time I’d play one of Daddy’s records, I’d just start to cry.”
An attempted suicide in 1974 was the low point. Had he died then, at 23, his music career would have been a historical footnote, an addendum to his father’s biography and little more. Facing those low patches and surviving them, gave him courage and inspiration to find his strength and his own voice.
He moved from Nashville to Cullman, Alabama, rethought his life, and recorded his first truly original work, an album called Hank Williams Jr. and Friends that featured Jennings, the Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell. Williams’ songs “Living Proof” and “Stoned at the Jukebox” were searing, emotional works.
A dive off Ajax Mountain in Montana in 1975, changed everything. He lived, barely, but emerged disfigured, wounded and, somehow, inspired. After multiple surgeries and a torturous recovery period, he was determined that he would spend no more time as a Hank Williams retread.
When he finally found his own voice, he reached sales plateaus that his father only dreamed of — 20 gold albums, six platinum albums (one of which has sold more than five million copies) and 13 chart-topping albums. He has not only honored his father’s legacy; he has extended it, enriched it, enhanced it and elevated it.
“My name’s a reminder of a blues man that’s already gone,” he once sang. But the name “Hank Williams, Jr.” is much more than that.
At first, his new music was a turnoff to some longtime fans, but it was embraced by a new crowd that liked this newly bearded Bocephus. Hank, Jr.’s music was now rambunctious, forthright and distinctive.
The music world caught on to those changes around 1979, the year he released his first million-selling album, Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, along with his autobiography, Living Proof.
In 1987, Hank, Jr. won his first of five country music Entertainer of the Year awards, and the two albums released that year — Hank Live and studio effort Born To Boogie — were platinum sellers. Born To Boogie was the CMA’s Album of the Year in 1988, the year he won the CMA and ACM’s top entertainer prize.
Hank, Jr.’s star rose far beyond the country world in 1989, when manager Merle Kilgore arranged a deal with ABC’s Monday Night Football to have Hank, Jr. rework “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” into a theme song to be played before each Monday night game. Two years later, the Monday Night theme won the first of four straight Emmy Awards, and Hank, Jr. would remain the voice of Monday Night Football for 22 years.
With the Monday Night Football deal in place, Hank Williams, Jr. was now known to millions who had never listened to country music, and he’d become an ambassador for the genre.
His room-shaking voice is as identifiable to fans as that of his father, and he has passed the family music tradition down to son Shelton and daughter Holly, both of whom are recording artists in their own right.
“I’ve been a very lucky man,” he’s fond of saying, but Hank, Jr. has made his own luck, and made it his own way. Given a chance to coast on his father’s songs and his father’s royalties, he found a new song to sing, and a new way to sing it.
By finding his own powerful voice, by turning rebellious and vulnerable, he has become a music icon in his own well-deserved right.
He was named as a BMI Icon at the 56th annual BMI Country Awards in 2008, for his “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.”
His Old School, New Rules album in 2012 was both political statement and personal playground for his unique sense of humor of this always outspoken and unfiltered artist. “Cow Turd Blues,” for example, is one Hank, Jr., jokingly calls, “one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever written.”
His most current project, It’s About Time, released in 2016, features barroom boogies, and rocking country played loud and proud, stirring up a ruckus the way only Jr. can. Opinions and attitudes are front and center. The album debuted at No. 15 on Billboard 200, and at No. 2 on Top Country Albums.
He remains an inspiration to Alan Jackson, Kid Rock, Jamey Johnson and other followers and a sure-bet for eventual entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame, where his plaque will be displayed in perpetuity, just like his daddy’s, only different.
“Stop and think it over,” the big man with the hat and glasses has asked, from a thousand stages, in front of millions of people. “Try to put yourself in my unique position.” It can’t be done.