Williams, Hank, Jr. (1949—)
Williams, Hank, Jr. (1949—)
Perhaps no one has ever been simultaneously such a major star and so much in the shadow of his father as Hank Williams, Jr. As an eight-year-old, Williams began his career as an imitator of his deceased father, then still the biggest name in country music. Ultimately trading on the fact that his name made it impossible for the country establishment to reject him, he was to become perhaps the most significant force in bringing rock music into country.
In an industry that has never been ashamed of exploitation, young Williams was shamelessly exploited. Between the ages of eight and fourteen, he played fifty shows a year, singing his father's songs. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was signed to MGM Records, his father's old label, and he was recording overdubbed duets with his father; he even overdubbed the singing for George Hamilton in Your Cheatin' Heart, a movie biography of Hank, Sr.
By the time he was in his late teens, Williams was drinking heavily; he felt utterly trapped inside a musical world that was making less and less sense to him. He was listening to the rock and roll of his generation—Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley—and thinking about the kind of music he really wanted to play. At 23, with his first marriage breaking up, Williams attempted suicide.
As part of his recovery, he left Nashville and moved to Alabama. He began to work seriously on developing his own music. In August 1975, after finishing work on what was to be a landmark country rock album, Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends, he took a vacation in Montana, and suffered a devastating accident: a near-fatal fall down a mountain virtually tore his face off.
After extensive physical therapy and plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, Williams returned to music with an absolute determination to create his own, rock-oriented kind of sound. A new country audience—one that had opened up to the "outlaw" sounds of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings—was ready for him. After a few modest successes, the highest-charting being his cover version of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law," he reached his stride in 1979 with a song that looked back at the past at the same time it snarled with the beat and attitude of rock. The song was "Family Tradition," and it was highly autobiographical. In it Williams was asked, "Why do you drink, and why do you roll smoke, and why do you live out the songs that Hank wrote?" Williams responded that he was simply carrying on a family tradition.
This proved to be a winning formula for Williams. Many of his subsequent hits were autobiographical. In one, he asks an operator to put him through to Cloud Number Nine so he can talk to his father. In "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down," he remembers the wildness of Nashville in the 1970s. Established as a major star in his own right by the mid-1980s, he was able to use his preoccupation with his father and his family history to successful record Hank Williams, Sr., hits like "Honky Tonkin'." In 1987, he even performed a duet with his father on a newly discovered, never released recording of a song called "There's a Tear in My Beer." Williams also released a video duet, in which his image is inserted into an old kinescope of his father. Since Williams, Sr. had never performed "There's a Tear in My Beer" for the cameras, a film was used in which he sings "Hey, Good Lookin"' with his mouth electronically doctored to lip-synch the words of the other song.
At the same time, Williams continued to be a major force in bringing rock into country, and making it an important part of the new country sound. In his semi-anthemic 1988 hit, "Young Country," he reminds his listeners that "We [the new generation of country performers] like old Waylon, and we like Van Halen." At the time, this was still a significant statement, and one that it took a child of traditional country like Williams to make. A few years later, the rockers themselves had become the country music establishment, with megastars like Garth Brooks modeling himself on arena rockers like Journey.
As Williams himself settled into the role of middle-aged country establishment figure in the 1990s, he remained solidly in the public eye with his theme song for Monday Night Football.
Williams, Hank, Jr., with Michael Bane. Living Proof: An Autobiography. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.