Williams, Hank Jr.
Hank Williams, Jr.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Hank Williams, Jr. seems destined to achieve the unthinkable: a level of stardom and critical acclaim exceeding that of his famous father. Named Entertainer of the Year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association for two consecutive years (1987 and 1988), the voluble Williams has finally come into his own as a performer and songwriter. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Ken Tucker contends that, given the weight of his father’s legend in the music business, “it is remarkable that Hank Williams, Jr. even decided to become a country-music performer, let alone one who has run up a consistent string of hits in the last few years.”
Tucker adds that the younger Williams has finally shaken “the lingering spirit of his father’s style” and created “his own rough, raucous approach to country music.” Williams has been singing professionally since he was eight, but only in the last decade has he forged a sound that can be called his own. That sound, “the purest example of the fusion between rock and country ever recorded,” to quote Esquire contributor Michael Bane, has found a nationwide following of fans.
Randall Hank Williams, Jr. was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1949. When he was only ten days old his father had a stunning six-encore debut at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Hank Williams, Sr. is still considered one of the most influential—and most loved—of country musicians, even though his days in the spotlight were few. Williams spent little time with Hank, Jr. as he toured the country and made records, and before the boy turned four, he was dead of an overdose of alcohol and drugs.
Death only increased Williams’s fame, and Hank, Jr.’s mother, Audrey, decided that her son could capitalize on the legendary name he had inherited. At the age of eight Hank Williams, Jr. was put to work singing. Bane writes: “From the time he was old enough to hold a guitar, Hank Junior was The Living Proof, the reincarnation of the sainted Hank Williams, dead of pills and liquor…. He sang his daddy’s songs, memorized his daddy’s jokes, practiced his daddy’s stage patter, and, ultimately seemed destined to repeat his daddy’s nose dive.”
Rick Marschall analyzes the pressures on Williams in The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music.”To a creative artist,” writes Marschall, “being accepted for wrong reasons is usually more frustrating than finding no acceptance at all. And such was the challenge to a very young Hank Jr. as he developed.” Indeed, many of the songs Williams wrote in his twenties deal with his father either directly or indirectly. One of his first number one country hits, “Standing in the Shadows,” describes his insecurity about his own accomplishments.
Full name, Randall Hank Williams, Jr. ; born May 26, 1949, in Shreveport, La.; son of Hank, Sr. (a singer, songwriter, and musician) and Audrey Williams; married first wife (divorced); married Beck White (divorced); children: (first marriage) Shelton Hank; (second marriage) Hilary, Holly. Education: High school dropout.
Country singer, 1957—. Currently backed by The Bama Band. Sang soundtrack for motion picture based on his father’s life, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” 1964, and for motion picture based on his own autobiography, “Living Proof; star of motion picture “A Time To Sing.”
Awards: Holder of 15 gold and 3 platinum albums; Video of the Year Award from Country Music Association, 1986; Entertainer of the Year Award from Academy of Country Music, 1987 and 1988; Entertainer of the Year Award from Country Music Association, 1987 and 1988; Album of the Year Award, 1988, for Born to Boogie.
Addresses: Office –Hank Williams, Jr. Enterprises, P.O. Box 850, Highway 79, East Paris, TN 38242.
Another, “The Living Proof,” asks rhetorically if the son will fall into all of his father’s bad habits. For a time Williams seemed predisposed to do just that. He abused alcohol and pills, married and divorced twice, and even attempted suicide before he turned thirty. Finally, convinced that his audience “came to hear the reincarnation of Hank Williams, the one true son of the rural South,” to quote Bane, Williams dropped out of the business temporarily, to concentrate on making himself unique.
According to Bane, in the early 1970s Williams threw himself into songwriting “with a vengeance, trying to piece his life together through the words of his songs…. The songs of Hank Junior became increasingly personal, honky-tonk vignettes frozen in amber.” The music also picked up that fusion of rock and country that would become the earmark of the so-called “outlaw” or “urban cowboy” school. Williams was one of the first to experiment with that sound; his 1975 album Hank Williams Junior and Friends is considered a watershed recording in the “outlaw” style.
Bane notes that Williams wanted “no less than a reaffirmation of the old fusions—blues/country, R&B/coun-try, rock/R&B, the kind of music that had powered southern honky-tonks since Day One.” Ironically, just as Hank Williams and Friends was giving a needed boost to his career, the young singer was nearly killed in an accident. He slipped while mountain climbing and fell nearly 500 feet, landing on a boulder. For more than a year he was incapacitated while surgeons reconstructed his face, which had been literally split in half. Then, with the accident behind him, a new Hank Williams, Jr. rose to the challenge of stardom.
From the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, Williams was known primarily for celebrating male rowdiness and nonstop rockabilly. Jack Hurst observes in the Chicago Tribune that Williams “used his loud guitar and versatile instrumental skills to become first a Stars and Bars-waving musical Dixie zealot…. This stance made him a god south of the Mason-Dixon line.” Gradually, however, both Williams’s personal lifestyle and his song lyrics began to reflect his maturity and a newfound awareness of political and social issues. “Instead of his former intense Dixie-ism,” writes Hurst, “he expresses much more of a musical Americanism. Country music, he says, ‘has to have’ all sorts of sounds.”
Bane elaborates: “With his own life filled with enough tragedy for a good dozen country tearjerkers, Hank Junior’s viewpoint became wry and satiric rather than self-pitying. It was, in fact, the viewpoint of a survivor, the person left standing when all the shooting stopped.” Nowhere is this sentiment more obvious than in Williams’s number one hit “A Country Boy Can Survive,” an earnest evocation of all the positive aspects of plain country life. Bane calls the song “the classic southern ethos—leave me alone or else—boiled down into three minutes or so, and it is a personal as well as a political statement. This particular country boy has survived.”
Not only has Williams survived, he has flourished. In 1985 he hired a new manager, Merle Kilgore, who set about rehabilitating his rowdy, outlaw image and mending the bridges between Williams and the Nashville hierarchy. Properly humbled, and finally willing to participate politely in the Nashville scene, Williams has been embraced and has earned the industry’s most prestigious awards. Williams told the Chicago Tribune that his new image is more than skin deep. “I may seem pretty square to some folks at this point in my life,” he said, “but I get so sick of the damn drug thing, seeing it on the news and seeing it take a lot of great artists right to the bottom. I probably started feeling that way because of all my trips to the hospital, hearing doctors tell me to start being a tough s.o.b. and start taking care of myself. After you lose enough friends—and I’ve lost some, whether in car wrecks or drug overdoses or whatever—it just gets frightening.”
Williams has also become philosophical about the industry rejection he suffered until just recently. “America loves an underdog,” he told the Chicago Tribune.”If I had gotten all the awards [before], I’d probably be like some of these other guys who today are selling insurance in Birmingham or something. And I don’t want to do that.”
Living Proof (autobiography), Dell, 1983.
Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, Polydor, 1975; reissued, 1987.
Five-O, Warner Brothers, 1985.
Major Moves, Warner Brothers, 1985.
Greatest Hits Volume II, Warner Brothers, 1985.
The Early Years: 1976-1978, Warner Brothers, 1986.
Montana Cafe, Warner Brothers, 1986.
Blues My Name, Polydor, 1987.
Hank “Live,” Warner Brothers, 1987.
Born To Boogie, Warner Brothers, 1987.
Eleven Roses, Polydor, 1987.
Live at Cobo Hall, Polydor, 1987.
Luke the Drifter, Jr., Volume II, Polydor, 1987.
Standing in the Shadows, Polydor, 1988.
Wild Streak, Warner Brothers, 1988.
Also recorded Pride’s Not Hard To Swallow, The Last Love Song, After You, Family Tradition, 14 Greatest Hits, 40 Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits, Volume I, Habits Old and New, High Notes, Man of Steel, The New South, One Night Stands, The Pressure Is On, Rowdy, Strong Stuff, A Time to Sing, and Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound.
Marschall, Rick, The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music, Exeter, 1985.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock ’n’ Roll, Summit Books, 1983.
Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1987; October 2, 1988.
Esquire, March, 1982.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1985.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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