Interview and Performance: Hank Williams Jr.
Interview and Performance: Hank Williams Jr.
Hank Williams Jr. dusted off a gem of a song he wrote some fifteen years ago—but never recorded—during his March 29 solo performance and interview session at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater. The program was part of opening weekend festivities for the museum’s 2008–09 major exhibition, Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy, Co-Presented by SunTrust and Ford Motor Company.
With introspective lyrics inspired by a letter found in one of his father’s guitar cases, the song, “Hand Me Down,” fit the gravity of the exhibit storyline while also underscoring the reflective tone of the day’s program.
“I went down to the Country Music Hall of Fame/They asked me to bring some more of Daddy’s things,” Hank Jr. sang in the opening verse. “They said, ‘Hank, you know, you may go in here with him’/And I thought about the note he wrote … He said, ‘Son, this is my ol’ guitar/And it’s for you only to play/I hope you make it ring and talk/ In our good ol’ family way/And if you make it to the top/Bocephus, boy, I’ll be so proud/Listen to me son, when the time comes/Take this guitar and hand me down.’”
The fourth song of his afternoon set, the performance earned Williams the first of several standing ovations from the capacity crowd, which included several family members, among them wife Mary Jane Williams, half-sister Lycrecia Williams Hoover, and Hank Jr.’s oldest daughters, Hilary and Holly Williams.
Hank Jr. performed a dozen songs during the ninety-minute program, seated on a stool, singing, and playing acoustic guitar throughout. He opened with a bluesy adaptation of his father’s 1950 classic “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” the song that first landed Hank Jr. himself on the Billboard country chart in 1964, at age fourteen.
He performed Hank Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man” for his second number, and dipped again into his father’s songbag later for “There’s a Tear in My Beer.”
Bocephus, who was three when his father died in 1953, sang about his father, and his father’s legacy, in several of his own originals, including “The Conversation” (recorded as a duet with Waylon Jennings in 1983).
In “Feelin’ Better” (from 1978), a request from Holly Williams in the front row, Hank Jr. addressed his need to step out of his father’s looming shadow and blaze his own trail: “I started turning up loud and looking at the crowd and bending them guitar strings,” he sang. “Knew all the while, though it was my style, could they ever forget my name? … Well my life ain’t the same, and I had to change, and I hope this music will show, a little bit less of crying and the beer and a little of my own soul.”
Williams also performed his smash hits “Dixie on My Mind,” “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down),” “Born to Boogie,” and “A Country Boy Can Survive” before laying down his guitar to answer questions from museum staffer Michael McCall, co-curator of the Williams exhibit. Following the interview, Williams closed the program by singing “The Blues Man” with Holly, and trading verses with Holly and Hilary on “Family Tradition.” Carrying on the Williams tradition as a recording artist in her own right, Holly handled the lines, “I am very proud of my daddy’s name/Although his kind of music and mine ain’t exactly the same,” showing that the song rings as true for her as it did for her father.
During the interview, Hank Jr. elaborated on the message of “Feelin’ Better,” explaining the pressures he faced in his youth to ape his father’s music and help support his family, particularly on package tours orchestrated by his mother, Audrey. “People have got to realize Hank Williams died at twenty-nine,” he said. “Audrey Williams did way more shows than Hank—way more, that’s just the way it was … We’re going to generate some income for this family. That’s what we did, the Audrey Williams Caravan of Stars or the Hank Williams Memorial Tour.”
Williams pointed out that audiences, accustomed to hearing him in his father’s mold, initially reacted negatively to the music he began making in the late 1960s as he approached adulthood and started finding his own style. “They didn’t like it,” he said, mimicking boos and hisses. “‘What’s wrong with him?’ … I never could get it across to all of the promoters and managers that, you know, you’re really missing something here, y’all. Daddy don’t need me to promote him. Do you understand that? He don’t need me to promote him. He does a real good job all by himself … All you got to do is listen to one album. It’s there. It is timeless.”
Hank Jr. has few vivid memories of his father, but remarked that “I still know him pretty good.” He later emphasized that “it wasn’t all gloom and doom” for the tragic Hank Sr., sharing road stories passed down about practical jokes with stink bombs and exploding cigarettes. “They had fun,” Williams said. “You’re talking about ‘rock stars’ that are twenty-something years old. You’ve got to remember that. This fellow was a sex symbol, there’s no doubt about it.”
Hank Jr. told some road stories of his own, revealing that the southern rock musicians he traveled with in his twenties didn’t take so kindly to his banjo lessons. “‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ at 5:30 in the morning on a bus full of musicians—they hated it,” he said with a laugh.
Although now feeling rejuvenated, Williams admitted he had doubts about the future of his career after losing his longtime manager and dear friend, Merle Kilgore, in 2005. “I thought when Merle died it was over,” he said. “You just can’t imagine … He was so full of energy, love, and B.S. … You put all that together, then that person’s gone, it will work on you.” Likewise, he talked about the emotional pain he felt, as a parent, when Holly and Hilary were involved in a serious automobile accident in Mississippi two years ago.
Williams said he is content performing fewer shows these days, that way he can attend to his family and spend more time hunting, fishing, and collecting Civil War artifacts.
However, he remains passionate about music and still looks forward to making new recordings. “I’ve always aimed real high,” he said. “You gotta aim high, especially with the first two names that I’ve got. That’s the only place you can aim. Fans, they expect a lot out of me, and I don’t want to cut them short.”