Hank Williams, Jr. - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Hank Williams Jr.'s story is one of the strangest in country music history. Before establishing himself as the idiom's reigning heavyweight champion circa 1987, Williams' life was marked by years of pure psychological torture. Just a toddler when his famous father suddenly died, he essentially grew up, toting an oversize guitar, within the spotlight's hot, unforgiving glare, aping his forebear's brilliant music to endless applause while within, the kid suffered with a throbbing cloud of guilt, loss, resentment and confusion. While he had very few concrete personal memories of his fabled father, he grew up routinely hearing statements like "you're a ghost, son, nothin' but your Daddy's ghost," as Grand Ole Opry star Red Foley once famously told him. The manner in which he was able to defy and re-direct his singularly troubled pathology nearly killed him, but it also contributed to a remarkable body of work that expanded Hank Senior's brilliantly mournful honky tonk and also reached into subject matter very few other Nashville cats would dare to broach.


            Born Randall Hank Williams on May 26, 1949 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Williams was raised in Nashville and more often heard his father on the radio then he ever saw him in the flesh. Hank Sr., who had separated in January 1952 from Junior's mother Audrey (and whom he subsequently divorced ) almost always greeted his son over the airwaves, invariably using the nick name Bocephus (a moniker borrowed from the ventriloquist dummy used by Grand Ole Opry comic Rod Brasfield), but the toddler was just three and a half years old when his father died. By the age of eight, Audrey had trained Williams' to replicate his fathers blue yodel and haunting vocal style and she began booking shows with the child as a special attraction on her Caravan of Stars road show. He debuted on the Grand Ole Opry at age eleven, singing Williams' break out 1949 hit "Lovesick Blues"  and besting Senior's record of six encores there (junior had to sing it seven times). To fans, he was a combination of the divine and profane, sort of a honky tonk boy Lama, and that reverence translated into a big payday for Audrey, herself an aspiring entertainer who had long since proved that­--unlike Junior--she did not have what it took for a musical career.


            This was extremely weird stuff for a fatherless pre-pubescent to digest, and he reacted by jumping in, headfirst, to the rhinestone spangled country music lifestyle, up to and including the standard Nashville diet of whiskey, amphetamines and marijuana; dalliances with star struck floozies soon followed. Audrey secured him a record deal with Senior's old label MGM in 1963, and the following year he scored his first Top Five country hit with a re-make of Senior's "Long Gone Lonesome Blues." Over the next two years, his singles "Guess What," "That's Right, She's Gone," and "Endless Sleep" all made the country Top Fifty and the teenager made appearances in several films (Country Music on Broadway, and later, A Time to Sing) and also dubbed the vocal parts for actor George Hamilton's portrayal of Hank Senior in 1964 bio-pic Your Cheatin' Heart. By 1966, Williams' began to display his own innate talent, with his striking, autobiographical original "Standin' in the Shadows." The song signaled the course which much of his subsequent work would follow, and it was also, finally, more Junior than Senior; gratifyingly, it also became his second Top Five country hit.


            A commercial dry spell set in but by 1969, Williams was coming on strong, racking up hits, ditching his Audrey-assembled Cheatin' Hearts band and reuniting his fathers Drifting Cowboys. When he teamed with Johnny Cash for a show in Detroit that year, it turned out to be the highest grossing country music event ever--the singers sold $93,000 worth of tickets; when he re-signed to MGM in 1970, it was the heaviest deal in the label's history, and Williams came through with almost twenty Top Ten country hits over the next few years. The family mystique was made of gold, but the internal burden--and crass exploitation routinely visited upon him by his producers--was profoundly oppressive. Williams hit bottom and attempted suicide in 1974, which led him to seek psychiatric treatment. He moved away from Nashville to remote Cullman, Alabama, concentrating more on hunting, fishing and mountain climbing than on music. Williams was content, perhaps almost happy for the first time but in an ugly twist, he nearly died in a frightening, 500 foot fall off Ajax mountain, a peak straddling the Montana and Idaho border. His face was essentially scraped off and his skull cracked so badly that his brain was clearly visible (his own account of the incident, in the 1977 autobiography Living Proof is nothing short of chilling).


            With the help of friends like Cash and Waylon Jennings, Williams didn't just rally, he ignited. Extensive reconstructive surgery allowed him to return to the stage in 1976, and over the next few years, Williams emerged as a powerfully individualistic force. Albums like Family Tradition and Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound (both released on Elektra in 1979) showcased a rebellious yet philosophical spirit, one whose affection for Marshall Tucker-Allman Brothers style Southern rock and an affinity for the Waylon Jennings Outlaw attack plan coalesced into a powerful, brawny, new sound (one he defended- in song- against fake country acts with  "Dinosaur"). Rough, declarative statements of songs like "Dixie on My Mind" and "All My Rowdy Friends have Settled Down," and the autobiographical magic that is "A Country Boy Can Survive" quickly brought a legion of  younger and equally unorthodox country fans, and Williams began to preach to these converts with resounding success and selling records by the truck load.


            While Williams had a shelf full of awards from BMI and Billboard stretching back to 1966, it was not until 1987--the year of  his raucous hit "Born to Boogie" and at the peak of his power--that Nashville's politicized Country Music Association finally broke down and named him Entertainer of the Year (doing so again in 1988). But Williams did not stay in one spot. His 1989 version of the Fats Waller classic "Ain't Misbehavin'" went to number one, and a return to his father's music, with that same year's "duet" with Senior on "There's a Tear in My Beer" earned him his first Grammy (the innovative video, featuring both father and son also won him the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music's Best Video award). He was the Big Wheel of country music in the late 80's, almost ubiquitous with the ABC Monday Night Football "Are Your Ready for Some Football?" theme song, but within a few years, events seemed to conspire against Williams. First, the legal recognition of Jett Williams as an heir to Senior's estate  (after a long and acrimonious struggle where she staked a claim as Junior's half-sister) was a bitter personal affront and the concurrent rise of Garth Brooks and the “hat” acts signaled a marked change in the music's direction. Williams cut back on touring and recording, issuing a only few albums in the 1990s, but he could sell out any venue in the Southeast whenever he chose.  More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that Hank Williams Jr. no longer had to prove anything to anyone--just as long as there's a honky tonk with a jukebox in it. His music will loom as notoriously large as his father's.

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