HANK WILLIAMS JR.
STAR PLAZA THEATRE, JULY 22
Like a beefier, unhinged version of the hillbilly in the TV commercial who asks the dowager to “please pass the jelly,” Hank Williams Jr. is a man who calls it as he sees it. It’s not that he doesn’t have any manners; they’re just complicated, family-specific ones. He explains them himself in “A Country Boy Can Survive”: “We say grace / And we say ma’am / If you ain’t into that / We don’t give a damn.” Last Friday he stood on the Star Plaza stage and, with all the vainglorious chutzpah of a legend, finished “Family Tradition” by bellowing the retort he aims at anyone who dares slag him–“They can kiss my ass!” There are few experiences more strangely liberating than screaming those words along with a couple thousand other rabid Bocephus fans. It’s worth the price of admission, and also part of it.
This was his core audience, the people who have stayed with him even when country radio hasn’t–the middle-aged woman in a Bocephus T-shirt who waved two rebel flags; the guy who cruised to the show in a four-wheel-drive pickup with the words “Hot Shit” stamped on the tailgate; the people who angrily inundated ABC with calls and letters when the network yanked their boy as musical spokesman for Monday Night Football. It was the lout who screamed before the show “Wake up, you drunk, and get out here!” and then didn’t dare shout anything remotely personal once Bocephus appeared and stalked the stage 20 feet away. It was the articulate biker who thinks Ricky Van Shelton sucks and that real country should rock the house. It was the yahoos who yee-hawed and howled “Bocephus!” throughout Marty Brown’s opening set. It was two guys who ran through the balcony waving a huge and slightly different Stars and Bars; this one seemed to have a beer keg in the center. It was the people who hobbled in on canes hoping to get spiritually rocked into orbit. And it was me, clapping along and shouting “Hog-wild!” as Hank Jr. came swaggering out in a billow of smoke.
“I love my people,” said the man who brought them all to this dance. And what the people love back is a country star who, among other things, changes lyrics to suit the spirit of the moment, occasionally froths and spits when he sings, wags his butt, jams out on air guitar when he isn’t playing the real thing. He’s a big fucking baby and he’s one helluva man. He’s unpredictable, spontaneous, equal parts lummox and legend, as accessible as he is impenetrable. For the most part, Nashville would rather run a score of cookie-cutter bantamweights up the flagpole, hoping the line-dance nation will salute, than deal with such rude and garish behavior. When Hank Jr. steps into the ring he plays to the demographic that has put up with his crap and embraced his genius, some for almost 20 years now. It’s a demographic that plunges off the graph because it follows where he leads.
Garth Brooks carefully manipulates his own yahoo faction, but he also tearfully kisses up to it with dashes of fake humility and drippy homilies about God and family. Hank Jr. treats his fans like family, which is to say more like the screeching white-trash inhabitants of Cops than the sanitized blue-collar heroes Garth salutes in “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association.” And unlike the pudgy Oklahoman, Bocephus makes a beer gut look like just about the sexiest thing going.
Hanging behind the stage were banners emblazoned with telling caricatures: hog heads wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. Dressed in black and his ever-present cowboy hat, Hank Jr. swaggered in front of the drum riser. He looked happier than a pig in shit. You couldn’t see his eyes behind his dark glasses, but they were easy enough to feel when this self-styled redneck King Leer stared out and sang with genuine raunch, “I like to have women I’ve never had.” The men hollered, and so did a lot of women who apparently wouldn’t mind being had.
Hank Jr. and his seven-piece band careened through everything he’s ever cared about, whether or not it made any sense to anybody outside the family. He blasted through instrumental versions of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” and Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” “What do you think the coolest song of all time is?” he drawled. “There ain’t but one,” he shouted, and ripped into Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The music itself is sprawling, blues-based, guitar-driven southern boogie coupled with the personal and self-referential lyrics of the outlaw country movement. After all, Bocephus straddles both camps: Waylon Jennings was a duet partner and Dickie Betts was a fishing buddy. To Hank Jr., it’s all been the same thing–one big new south.
When he covered his father’s song “Kaw-liga,” complete with war whoops and Atlanta Braves tomahawk chops, he sawed away on a fiddle that looked like a toy in his huge hands. He finished the song by flinging the fiddle in an arc the length of the stage to a roadie waiting in the wings.
For the solo, acoustic-guitar portion of his show, his roadies lugged out his functional throne, a chair bolted to a small platform. He planted that ass that all are invited to kiss, and before singing “There’s a Tear in My Beer” acknowledged his ghost-father, the Senior who has informed his entire life. “Life magazine said he was number one, baby–there’s nobody else,” he growled, referring to the latest edition, which ranks the top 100 country artists of all time. What Hank Jr. didn’t mention was that he made that list too–completing the circle at 100.
Life also tipped its hat to Garth, who clocked in at number 27. The difference between them, though, can be measured in light-years. Garth can be counted on to humbly thank his many fans, because without them none of it would be possible. Hank Jr., on the other hand, has made his own life possible. He left Nashville in 1974, after years of performing as a second-hand identity to a dead father, and landed in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He recorded his breakthrough album, Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, and wrenched out his first personal manifesto on “Living Proof”: “I don’t want to be a legend / I just want to be a man.” Then, just as he was rising up through the haze of his impossible legacy, he went mountain climbing and came back down the hard way–by plunging off a cliff. The face you see today is the one that was painfully reconstructed through extensive plastic surgery years ago. The beard and the sunglasses and the hat may be a mask of sorts, but that’s all just surface stuff. Since his rebirth Hank Jr. has never hidden his essential self, and that’s what makes him an artist.
For all his chest-pounding and leering, there are intense moments of both genuine affection and hellish brooding in his shows. Hank shows all the emotions that families–and most entertainers for that matter–keep hidden, whipping open the shutters of his crazy, complicated soul. He rarely wants to thank his fans, because they’re his family, and most people rarely thank their families for anything. And if you’re family, Hank Jr. expects only two things: don’t get above your raisin’, and please pass the goddamned jelly. And if you don’t like that, well, you can kiss it or you can try to kick it, but either way you know what your options are.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.