Hank Williams Jr. has a long way to go to regain his crown as the king of rowdy country. While he ruled the 1980s, somewhere around the end of that decade or the beginning of the 1990s, he dropped off the country music map. For a while there, he was more of a caricature of some of the songs that he sang than a viable country artist.
Now, with most folks in their 20s or younger, he’s probably better known as the “Monday Night Football” guy than for the great music he put out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Of course, his football gig came to an end last fall after some comments that he made about President Obama. It’s not the first time he’s opened mouth and inserted foot and probably won’t be the last. Should he have been canned over it? Probably not. But there’s always hope for fans that the end of his MNF run might bring him back around to focusing on music. He’s dropped his long-time record label and got a new team working behind him, and it might just be enough for a fresh start.
Even though they’ve been largely overlooked, a couple of Bocephus’ recent albums were actually pretty good. I thought the relatively quiet 2002 Almeria Club Recordings was the best thing he’d done since the 1980s, and the haunting title track of his last record, 127 Rose Avenue, stands up to his best work. Of course, both had some audience-pandering songs full of flag waving and tough-guy bravado. Nothing wrong with that, but the songs he does along those lines now just don’t ring as true to me as, say, “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
I expect a few of those on his upcoming record Old School, New Rules, due out in July. You can see at least one in the song titles – “We Don’t Apologize for America.” And, of course, “Keep the Change,” about Obama and the aforementioned MNF debacle, was released shortly thereafter. But I’m also hoping for a few more thoughtful tunes like “127 Rose Avenue” or “Last Driftin’ Cowboy” from his last record, or even something like “Red, White and Pink-Slip Blues,” which actually speaks to his audience rather than spouting knee-jerk rhetoric.
Some of the live clips that have leaked out, notably “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams,” seem to recall some of his earlier work. The first official taste we get of the record, though, “That Ain’t Good,” is a mix. The first verse, obviously, is another reference to MNF, but after Hank gets that off his chest, it turns into a pretty solid song. It’s one of those blue collar, working man kind of songs, but it doesn’t seem overly contrived like so many of those kinds of tunes do now. There’s definitely a feel of his 1980s work to it, mixing country with some blues-rock guitar and piano, and the female backing vocals toward the end of the song are a nice touch. It’s not a bad way to introduce people to the record.
I know there will be some crazy, off-kilter numbers. There usually are. But the couple of tunes I’ve heard make me hopeful that he might get back to what he does best here. And, if nothing else, I don’t believe there’s a way to go wrong with a version of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” by Hank Jr. and Merle Haggard.