A country boy can survive, and Hank Williams Jr. is living proof of that. After all, he’s back on the country charts with “That’s How They Do It in Dixie,” with a new album of the same name arriving later this month. In this interview, Bocephus answers fan questions about singing new songs for Merle Haggard, sneaking cigarettes with Waylon Jennings and speaking the same language as Gretchen Wilson.
Editor’s Note: CMT’s In the Moment: Hank Jr.’s Guide to the Great Outdoors, with guests Joe Nichols and Lee Ann Womack, premieres Saturday (June 17) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
1. You’re a talented songwriter. In your opinion, what makes a good country song?
(laughs) Oh, boy. What makes a good country song? Well, I’m not gonna give you that answer, “Oh, it better to be about drinking and divorce and all.” Nah, baloney. A good song is good song.
2. What do you consider the difference between Southern rock and country? It seems these lines are crossed all the time.
Not much. Not much. You know, an old blues man named Tee-Tot — Rufus Payne — taught Hank Williams how to play the guitar. And [blues musician] Lightnin’ Hopkins told me, and I’ve never heard anybody put it better, he said, “Country music ain’t nothing but white people’s blues.” I still live by that. What a great statement that was.
3. Do you think your music has changed over the years, or is it basically the same?
Not really. The same. You can listen to an album from 1971. … Well, of course, the voice is completely different — after 520 feet down the Montana mountainside — a little different voice than that kid in ’71. Basically, from the Family Tradition album on, that’s all Bocephus.
4. Has the MuzikMafia movement renewed your passion and enthusiasm for your music?
Hasn’t done a thing for me. Zero. Good friends of mine. But nah, hmm-mm. You know, I don’t sit here and watch, uh, I don’t watch CMT videos and listen to country radio all the time. That’s just the way it is. I don’t do that. No. For somebody I like, yeah, but I don’t do that. And most guys that are kind of in my position, they’re not going to do shop all day. They’re going to watch the Outdoor Channel. (laughs) And that other channel. (laughs) But seeing guys like that come along and having a big success gives me a great feeling for them. You know, I’ve watched a lot of artists in my career. … Me and Gretchen Wilson really speak the same language. When we did that first video, I told all of her family, I said, “Let me tell you something: She’s gonna blow wide open, and the world’s gonna change.” And about a year later they said, “Boy, were you right.” I really like her. We get along. Hank and Gretch work.
5. In “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down),” you were the young guy whose older show biz friends couldn’t keep up with anymore. Now you’re the legend working with today’s younger stars. Do you feel like the tables have turned?
No. That never entered Hank Jr.’s mind. No, that’s something I don’t feel like. But I do feel really good, and I’m not gonna sit here and drop names when so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so comes over and says, “Oh, my god. Show me that thing you showed so-and-so. Are you kidding me? You just found your father’s this-or-that?” Or, “That’s Dickey Betts’ gold top [guitar]? That’s Toy Caldwell’s guitar from the Marshall Tucker Band?” The great guitar player that died so young. And they say, “Huh? Does anybody ever see these?” and I say, “No, just my friends.”
6. Do you ever get tired of singing “Family Tradition”?
Never. Nope. Especially when I got 10,000 singing every word with me. (laughs) That’s why I never get tired of it. Or 40,000. Nope, don’t get tired of that. That will be a timeless song for me.
7. How did you come up with the song, “Blues Man”?
I really like to play open G [guitar tuning]. Thunderhead Hawkins, my aka. The really good ones take about 10 minutes to write. “Blues Man” took about 10 minutes. “I’m just a singer, a natural born guitar ringer.” Boom! OK, here we go! It’s gone. Some people can paint pictures and … that’s something that is just really easy for me.
8. Is there a story behind “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound”?
Yeah. The Allman Brothers and me in Hollywood. Gregg Allman married Cher, and that worked all of three months. Dickey Betts said, “You know, how do you write — just bang! — a good country song?” And I’d had several No. 1’s in a row. And I said, “Well, it’s always good to start off with a idea like, (sings) “I got a good woman at home …” and from there, schoooooo, the rocket launched. And that’s exactly how it went down. That’s how it happened. All the good ones take like 10 minutes. And then sometimes you’ll have one that’s up there a year or two. Then you get the one other line, then bam, and you birth that one. I had that happen to me the other day. I had that thing but just that one line, pow! And there it was. You know, I played it for ol’ Haggard. And he said, “Wow, you better go cut that one.” When Merle Haggard says you better go cut it, it’s pretty good. I like that man.
9. What is your favorite song that you recorded that never became a single? “Montana Café” and “O.D. in Denver” are two of my favorites.
I got lots of them. It ain’t one. I’ve got lots of ’em. My God, I’ve got a hundred albums. I go back here and say, “Did I write that? Wow that’s pretty good! Isn’t that awful? Is that mine?” I’m a guy that’s known as the elephant man, like with a great memory. That’s kinda bad, isn’t it? “Wow, I ought to go cut that again. Wow, I did good back then.” (laughs) No, I don’t live on one, huh-uh. I’ve written more in the last six months than I have in the last six years. I don’t know what’s going on, but something good’s going on.
10. Your recording of “The Conversation” with Waylon Jennings is one of my favorite songs. Any chances you and Shooter Jennings might get together and record a song or two?
Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah. Waylon and me were pretty tight. Shooter’s got “CBCS” and a gun tattooed on his forearms. And he said, “You know that means ‘country boy can survive.'” And I said, “Wow.” Yeah, I’d love it. I’ve already done, you know, a couple of things with Shooter, but, yeah, anytime. Me and him. His daddy and his mama are pretty close friends.
11. Do you think Waylon got the respect and the credit he deserved in music?
You ain’t kidding! And will — like Hank Sr. — for a long time. Oh, yeah. … You ain’t kidding. People don’t realize that [when I was] on tour with Audrey Williams’ caravan of stars –and there’s a guy named Merle Haggard and one named Waylon and a little bitty kid out there, Hank Jr. And they’re wondering which of those two guys is going to make it? And I’m in [Waylon’s] Dodge motor home so I can get over there and sneak cigarettes to get away from mama. Yeah, we were pretty close. … He wouldn’t go fishing, though. He hated it. (laughs) He said, “I’ll be right here when you get back.”
12. Your outdoors special for CMT features Lee Ann Womack and Joe Nichols. Was Lee Ann a little too girly to go fishing with?
Not at all. Let me tell you something. We’re 40 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico and squid and slimy stuff all over the deck. … Never got sick. She jumped in there with that big reel and reeled ’em in. You know, when you see the show, it almost pulled her in. And she said, “I had no idea the force of these big ocean fish.” She was perfect. She was great. I thought, “Man, I’m afraid she could get hurt and might fall in.” Let me tell you something. Lee Ann Womack is a country girl. She knows what she’s doing. And I loved it. I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, she’s sitting there putting lip gloss on and reading, I don’t know, a fashion magazine. Man, she jumped up there. We said, “OK, we’re over the hull.” 190 feet down. Using a crank reel. There’s some grit to Lee Ann Womack, let me tell you that.
13. What do you think about today’s country music? Do you agree with the new sound and things that are being written and sung about?
Waylon said a little bit before he died, “Hoss, if it ain’t got bubblegum stuck to it, you can forget it. It’s over.” And I really kinda thought he was really right for a while. And then, thank goodness, another wonderful song will come along. … It’s not all bubblegum and record company promotion. There’s been a few radio problems that everybody knows about: “We’ll give you this and this and this and that if you’ll play this record.” And everybody knows about it. You get kind of negative about it, and then you say, “No, look at this great song that Keith Urban had.” It ain’t all bubblegum, and it ain’t all 26-year-olds. Now, they want you to think it is, and I’m gonna tell you right now that it ain’t. They want you to think that, you know, only beautiful 26-year-olds listen to country music. Bullshit! (laughs) That’s what I think about it. There are some dinosaurs around. And they have a few fans — and they buy a few records and tickets. (laughs)
14. Do you like your son’s music?
Yeah, he’s got it. Oh, Hank III, he’s got it. He’s a lot like the grandfather and the father. People don’t realize Hank Sr. got out there and played the fiddle, and then he played the bass and then he played the lap [steel guitar], which Hank Jr. has been known to play everything up there. He can play anything. You gotta have it in your heart. You better mean what you’re singing or you need to get out of this business. That’s where I’m really lucky because they know I mean what I’m singing or I ain’t gonna sing it. Musically, he’s got it. If you ever see him live, there’s no doubt about it. He’s gonna do what he wants to do. His grandfather did it, his father did it and he’s gonna do it. End of story. (laughs) That’s what’s gonna happen, folks.
15. I know your daughter, Holly, is involved in music, but is your daughter, Hillary, musical, as well?
Oh, oh, oh. Hillary’s the one with the pipes. Like, that’s the one. Oh, she can bust the glass in here. Unbelievable. Bobby — Kid Rock — said, “My god, is that her on that tape?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, hell, that’s the one with the pipes!” But of course, with Holly, I like that little gravely part in the voice. I really like that. There have been some other big girl singers that have that. I don’t know how many songs a week she writes. She really turns them out. She can really play. I ain’t worried about her. She’ll knock on any door. She’ll never be poor. She’ll never be poor.
16. I’m very curious the way you use your guitar strap. It’s very much like a banjo player. Why do you wear it like that?
That’s very good. Whoever asked that question, that’s very good. Yeah, because I play banjo. I love five-string banjo. On an electric guitar, let’s say a two-hour show, it starts getting heavy right across the neck and shoulders. And I like to be able to flip it off and grab the fiddle, and that’s just the way I do it. And it did come from playing the banjo, just able to set it down and grab another instrument. It doesn’t tax your body out there.
17. We love your song, “A Country Boy Can Survive.” With everything that’s happening in this country these days, do you believe our freedom will survive? Do country people need to make changes in our lives to stay free?
When we did some radio promotion about two weeks ago, we landed at a military naval base in Virginia. Not for private aircraft. They gave us permission to land there, and there are 200 United States Navy personnel in dress whites at attention when I landed. Huh? To go over there to take a picture of VFA-105 gunslingers? I couldn’t believe it. … I sat there and I signed [autographs]. “Would you talk to my mama?” “Would you talk to my dad?” “Could you talk to my brother?” I signed every single one of them out there. And we did a little private show there, and they had the new F/A-18 Super Hornet –$140 million apiece — and a 21-year-old kid sitting there pointed to everything and knew everything about it. … Don’t think that our United States forces ain’t got it together. We’re gonna be free for a long, long time. They will kicketh the shit out of somebody, I’m telling you that! (laughs) That’s it. Yeah, we’re gonna be free for a long time. Don’t downgrade our people. I was very, very impressed. I was just really impressed. My god, it just blew me away. It really did. I’m gonna do more of that.
18. I recently read that you are no longer touring with the Bama Band. This was your band for many years. Is this true?
Well, no, it’ll always be that. You know, when a guy has played 25 years on the road, do you think I’m going to say, “Oh, please, please, please don’t leave”?” No. Hey, life moves on. Nothing’s going to be permanent. … You get somebody else. That’s what happens. I’ll never, ever blame anybody for that. Hey, I like to go fishing, too, more than almost everybody else. It’ll always be a Bama Band, no matter who’s there. It was just three guys, but they’d been there for a long time. I’ll never blame anybody for that.
19. You still sell a lot of tickets on your tour. How do you explain your longevity?
Because I’ve got something going on for me that I don’t know if too many other artists have got. I have got the most loyal, hardcore fans that there are. I could do 10 shows, a hundred shows or 30. I am the most blessed guy on the block. They’re gonna be there, and it amazes me. Eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds. It’s a very good feeling. … If I do 25 shows a year, it’s like, “Oh, my god. You got to do 25.” People have to realize, one year I did 235 dates in one year. I’ve been there on that bus. I see young artists who have done 150, and they tell me, “I have no life.” They’re completely worn out. They say, “Boy, how does he have all that energy?” Well, when you’re doing 25 and they’re all sold out, how do you not go out there and do it?
20. For so long, you have put out music worthy enough for radio airplay, yet radio has not been kind to you in the last 15 or so years. You still have a huge following and standing ovations everywhere you go. What drives you to continue to put out great music, knowing it probably won’t get much airplay?
Oh, when I’m gone, you watch what happens to some of them songs. I’m just telling you right now. They’re gonna get played, buddy. I ain’t gonna play no game. I’m not gonna do that routine. And I’m gonna write it. Like you said, it’s gonna be sold out. It’s gonna be packed. But, believe it or not, there are a couple little changes here. I mean, we’re sitting here right now with a Top 20 song, right as we speak, and a hit video. You might be surprised. There are a couple of deals looming on the horizon and some movies. In my words, “Stand by for a message.” Yeah, it’s not all bad. It’s kinda good over at the Hank Jr. camp right now.