100 Greatest Men: #28. Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank Williams Jr100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

The ultimate icon of Southern country rock, Hank Williams Jr. emerged from the long, influential shadow of his father to become one of the genre's most distinctive personalities.

Born in 1949, Hank Jr. was only a toddler when his father died.  As the namesake of the legendary Hank Williams, his early career consisted of Hank Jr. carefully following his father's footsteps, covering his material and even dressing like him for performances at the tender age of eight.

He found moderate success throughout the sixties and early seventies, and as his songwriting talent grew, he slowly began to develop his own unique style.  Still, he was little more than a B-list traditional country singer, making a lot of good music and having reasonably popular hits.   Alcoholism was slowing him down, and after getting a handle on his addiction, he began to incorporate Southern rock sounds into his country music.

Just as his signature style was emerging, tragedy struck when he suffered a terrible fall while mountain climbing in Montana.  After a long and difficult recovery, Williams returned with new purpose, and found his commercial breakthrough when he teamed up with producer Jimmy Bowen.  In 1979, he released two signature hits.  “Family Tradition” managed to exercise the demons of living in his father's shadow while simultaneously popularizing the sound that would help him escape it.   “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” lay down the template for his most powerful material.

Thus kicked off a decade where Williams Jr. would reach astonishing heights of popularity, with records selling in the millions, singles regularly topping the charts, and even becoming one of the genre's first successful music video artists.   In 1987 and 1988, he was named the CMA Entertainer of the Year, the culmination of his rise to superstardom.

He became widely known beyond the country music field with his popular themes for Monday Night Football, which earned him Emmy awards to go alongside his music industry statuettes.   His radio success faded in the nineties, but his popularity on the road and in popular culture hasn't subsided, though these days he's more likely to be found on Fox News than CMT, with his conservative and often inflammatory views continuing to garner notice outside the country music world.

Regardless of his notoriety in other fields, in the end, he'll be remembered for his body of work.  As arguably the most significant second generation talent in country music history, Hank Williams Jr.'s legacy is secured.

Essential Singles:

  • Eleven Roses, 1972
  • Family Tradition, 1979
  • Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, 1979
  • All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down), 1981
  • A Country Boy Can Survive, 1982
  • Born to Boogie, 1987
  • There's a Tear in My Beer (with Hank Williams), 1989

Essential Albums:

  • Songs of Hank Williams, 1963
  • Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, 1976
  • Family Tradition, 1979
  • Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, 1979
  • The Pressure is On, 1981
  • Born to Boogie, 1987
  • The Almeria Club Recordings, 2002

Next: #27. Bill Anderson

Previous: #29. Alabama

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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3 Responses to 100 Greatest Men: #28. Hank Williams, Jr.

  1. My stepsister is a little bit older than me (six+ years, maybe? I forget). She was a huge Hank, Jr. fan. Him and Elvis. I’m pretty sure it was the air of defiance to his music that resonated with her. His antagonistic antics endeared him to her as a symbol of rebellion. I was more of a traditional goody two-shoes. I didn’t see where mooning an audience was something to applaud. I felt it was distasteful.

    Later, I did come to connect with some of Hank’s music. Not the party songs, like “Born to Boogie” or “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”, but the more reflective ones like “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” and “The Blues Man”.

    I’ve always had a problem with Hank’s fantasy obsession about his parents’ romance. There’s his duet with Waylon, “The Conversation”:

    WAYLON: Wherever is right now, I hope he’s happy
    I hope he’s doing well
    HANK: He is, because he’s got one arm around my mama
    He sure did love Miss Audrey and raising hell

    It’s just not realistic or healthy for a grown man to continue to insist that his father, who divorced his mother and then remarried, would bask in an afterlife reconnected with the woman he couldn’t find happiness with in life. That’s a major theme in Hank, Jr.’s music and every time it comes up I just want to beg him to see a therapist.

    Back in 2001, I went with friends to the Kentucky State Fair to see him in concert. Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry were on the program, too. It was a really fun night. There were two things that struck me most about Hank’s set. 1) The guy is truly a gifted musician who can play any number of instruments – and play them well. 2) The audience tired of him early and a lot of people bailed on him halfway through his set. By the end of the show, I think we were down to about a third of our original size. I actually enjoyed the open-ended instrumental indulgences, but they seemed to bore the hell out of everyone else.

    Shortly after that show was 9/11, of course. I’ll never forget the night that country artists put on their fundraiser concert. That was where he performed “America Will Survive”. I was actually proud of him and the genre for that performance. It would have been so easy to have made it a much angrier song than it was. My favorite touch was that he changed the following lyric:

    “You can’t starve us out and you can’t make us run”
    ORIGINAL: ‘Cause we’re them old boys raised on shotguns”
    “AMERICA”: What we got here is freedom and fun

    I didn’t expect that level of nuance from Bocephus, and it actually impressed me that he changed that line – certainly leaving it in would have appealed to a lot of his fan base.

    His escalating ideological rhetoric throughout the Obama years, though, has soured me so much on his music that last year I traded in all my Hank CDs to Half Price Books. I deleted them from my iTunes library, too. It may not be fair to the recordings, but I just cannot enjoy his music – even songs I once truly loved – without feeling a combination of embarrassment, shame and guilt.

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I don’t let a performer’s politics spoil my enjoyment of their music. If I did I’d need to
    sell off whatever Tim McGraw, Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen albums I have

    I think you have Hank Jr placed about right. I’ve seen Hank Jr on two occasions – back in 1968 when he was still developing his own style and in 1988 when his popularity was beginning to fall off. Both were terrific shows. Assuming his vice hasn’t deteriorated too badly, I’d go see him again

  3. I don’t let a performer’s politics spoil my enjoyment of their music.

    This is, of course, one of the most debated issues concerning entertainers and there’s nothing new to be said here. Entertainers can only succeed by tapping into how we feel. They have to convince us of the verisimilitude of what they’re performing. That requires a specific kind of trust on our part. Sometimes, as with Hank, Jr. and me, we recognize that the material is still authentic, but it’s too far away from where we are.

    I don’t know what his stage show is like these days, but 12 years ago he sounded terrific and had lots of stage presence. I would imagine if you’re into his stuff, he’d be well worth seeing again.