NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sometimes it’s hard to tell who Hank Williams Jr. really is behind the dark sunglasses and the beard covering the facial scars.
The fact that Williams assumes multiple identities, whether it’s Bocephus or Thunderhead Hawkins, who is the centerpiece of her latest album, further complicates her part of personality — or stage presence. Sometimes he talks about himself in the third person as if he were watching a movie of his life.
“I’m a Gemini,” Williams said, referencing the star sign represented by twins to explain who he is.
Williams often defied easy characterizations. He is the son of an icon, the eldest Hank Williams, whose tragic death left him at a young age with a legacy to uphold and grow. After surviving a near-fatal fall from a mountain in 1975, Williams took his own rowdy Southern rock sound to new heights, changing the sound of country music.
His new record, ‘Rich White Honky Blues,’ his first album since 2016, gives more insight into the Country Music Hall of Famer’s early years and the influences that would eventually make him a unique artist.
The blues has always been part of his musical DNA. His father learned to play guitar in Alabama from a black bluesman named Rufus “Tee Tot” Paynebut his parents kept a boarding house and had few resources.
“They don’t have any money to give him, but they had food for guitar lessons,” Williams said of Payne.
After his father died at age 29, Williams Jr. was to follow in his footsteps early on. By age 8, he was performing his late father’s songs on stage, but driving home he was listening to blues by Bobby Blue Bland and late-night shows from WLAC, a radio station based in Nashville. who played rhythm and blues. “I don’t listen to the Grand Ole Opry,” Williams said. “I’ve never been a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Never will. Period. And I’ve done pretty well.”
Williams moved away from the traditional country his father was known for and began fusing genres – Delta blues, hard rock, country, soul – alongside bands like the Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
His No. 1 hits include “A Country Boy Can Survive”, “Family Tradition”, and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight”, which later became the opening theme song for “Monday Night Football”. He was named Artist of the Year multiple times by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music and won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration.
But he also became headlines for his turbidity and brashness, especially in his later years. He is not silent about his conservative political beliefs, loves to sing about God, guns and the South. His comments once cost him the “Monday Night Football” intro spot.
His new album continues to mythologize the boogie-woogie macho man, even though he has reached his 70s. The album is a sexualized adventure through X-rated blues material by Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, RL Burnside and Muddy Waters, as well as Williams’ own original tunes. Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, session musicians include electric slide guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, drummer Kinney Kimbrough and Auerbach on guitar.
“We understood each other pretty quickly,” Williams said. “I went there with Kenny and them and Dan, and it was like pouring water into a cup. Everything went well and we eliminated him in two and a half days.
Ken Levitan, Williams’ longtime manager, said Auerbach, a Grammy-winning producer and member of rock duo The Black Keys, was the right fit for Williams, brought together because of their knowledge of the blues.
“There are matches that work very, very well,” Levitan said. “And this one worked extremely well.”
Williams added his own improvised lyrical riffs to the songs, including sometimes rude remarks about women as the band giggled in the background.
“We say a few swear words. Several swear words,” Williams said with a smile. “This is Thunderhead Hawkins, southern Alabama, Mississippi juke joint. And that’s exactly how it sounds and how it feels.
But for all the bravado Williams displays, he cannot escape his own grief as his family continues to suffer tragedy.
Williams’ eldest daughter, Kate, died in a car crash at 27 in 2020, just months before it was announced, he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then his wife, Mary Jane Thomas, whom he married in 1990, died in March after a medical emergency at a Florida spa.
The album’s final track “Jesus Won’t You Come By Here,” the only religious song on the record and written by Lightnin’ Hopkins, was a song Williams had loved for decades. After all the bawdy blues he sings, “Jesus, won’t you come here/Kneel down to pray,” like a sinner on Sunday.
He can’t bring himself to sing the song live now after his wife’s death.
“I loved that song 40 years ago. And I still love it,” Williams said, her words infectious. I can do a lot I can’t do this now Now you have the answer.
“Hank had a very tough couple of years,” Levitan said. “At least in retrospect, (the song) has huge significance at this point.”
Williams dislikes the promotion of modern country records, having little patience for interviews. He has a private jet waiting to take him home a few hours from Nashville near Lake Kentucky, and he made it clear he was done talking.
“For everything that happened, I adopt a rather positive attitude. But this song is wonderful,” he said. “The whole thing attracts a lot of attention. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. It’s getting a lot of attention, guys. I guess you would call me an attention grabbing blues man. Goodbye.”
And Thunderhead Hawkins left the room.
Follow Kristin M. Hall on Twitter.com at https://twitter.com/kmhall