Whether or not a country boy can survive in this increasingly complex world remains an open question. But there’s absolutely no doubt that “A Country Boy Can Survive” will endure. Fact is, this Hank Williams Jr. manifesto is back with us again — this time as a somber music video.
“A Country Boy Can Survive” first materialized in 1982 as a hit single for Williams, topping out at No. 2 on Billboard’s country chart. At that time, music videos were in their infancy, and it would be another year before Williams made his first one — for “Queen of My Heart.”
“A Country Boy Can Survive” surfaced again in 1999 when Chad Brock covered it and tapped Williams and George Jones for guest vocals. Then, almost immediately in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist raids, Williams retrofitted his song to become the proclamation “America Will Survive,” which he accompanied with a performance video.
In the new music video, shot in stark black and white and featuring a remix of the original single, the seemingly ageless troubadour sits and sings on the bow of an otherwise empty barge gliding down the Cumberland River. He strums a guitar with his nickname — “Bocephus” — emblazoned on the pick guard. Such little action as there is occurs in a series of cutaway shots of the kind of rural working-class people the song celebrates — people fishing, hunting, welding, waitressing or just staring stoically into the camera.
With his commanding physical presence, Williams was a video natural from the start. And he knew it. Like his songs, most of his videos (and all his best ones) virtually scream out, “Look at me!” Image is everything: Hank the party animal, Hank the picker, Hank the heir to greatness. No matter what sort of protagonist a song might suggest, Hank always plays Hank.
Williams first demonstrated his video savvy in 1984 with “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” He made it an event, inviting loads of famous friends and swarms of Music Row worker bees to take part in the filming. It was the talk of the Row even before it aired. And why not? Bocephus knew how to throw a party. There’s comedian Jim Varney riding in on a bull, Cheech & Chong tumbling out of a smoke-filled limousine, Willie and Waylon playing a very shady game of poker and Grandpa Jones washing non-existent windows (just as he had done on Hee Haw). Of course, there were provocatively clad young women all over the place. They would become a Williams video staple.
“All My Rowdy Friends” won the video of the year award from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music and was even programmed on MTV.
Williams deserves an enormous amount of credit for infusing country videos with a sense of surprise, spectacle and good humor. Instead of participating in them grudgingly, as many other established artists were then doing, he devoted a great deal of thought, time and money to his videos. And he succeeded almost too much. Between 1985 and 1989, his videos won a total of six CMA and ACM trophies, even as he was being passed over for other honors. This led him to observe, with obvious annoyance, in one acceptance speech, “I make some audio, too.”
Using a horde of guest artists worked so effectively that Williams tried it again in “My Name Is Bocephus” (1987) and “Young Country” (1988). Both were testimonies to the influence he exerted in the entertainment world and to his zeal for staging events rather than merely telling stories. “Bocephus,” which focuses on Williams’ one-of-a-kindness, has cameo appearances by members of the Van Halen band, actor Dan Haggerty and comedians Gallagher and Bobcat Goldthwait.
“Young Country” is far more ambitious. It aspires — and damn near succeeds — in spotlighting every new country artist then on the charts, with a couple of pro football players tossed in for good measure. As two old codgers sit glaring at a TV set and bitching about what is and is not country music, the TV screen begins disgorging the likes of Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Keith Whitley, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the Forester Sisters, Patty Loveless, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Van Shelton, Highway 101, the Georgia Satellites and, quite unaccountably within this context, Minnie Pearl. Williams plays the elder statesman who scolds the old-timers for not being more open-minded toward the new talent.
A stunning feat of technical wizardry (at least for the times) enabled Williams to sing alongside his fabled father in “There’s a Tear in My Beer” (1989). Here’s the backstory: The elder Williams had demoed the song for another artist but had never made a finished recording of it himself. So Hank Jr. added his own vocals to the recording and released it as a single. He also commissioned a video that would likewise pair the two. The clip opens in color with Hank Jr. seated in a recording studio and singing the song. Outside, a storm roars and lightning flashes menacingly. Hank Jr. turns and sees the moving image of his father silhouetted on the glass panel of the studio door. When he opens the door and steps into the adjoining room, the video turns black and white, and he’s suddenly confronting the vision of his father and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, who are simultaneously performing “There’s a Tear.”
Through painstaking editing, Hank Jr. appears to walk in among the band members and stand behind his father. In addition, the editors superimposed appropriately moving lips on Hank Sr.’s face so that he appears to be singing the actual lyrics. This effort also won ACM and CMA awards.
During the ’90s, Williams’ videos tended to be less epic but no less imaginative. He enlisted Little Richard to liven up things in “If It Will It Will” (1991), a tune that might be described as jauntily fatalistic. The treat here is in the images, not the lyrics. In one scene, Williams and Little Richard meet, bow and stride into their individual dressing rooms, only to emerge a moment later each wearing the other’s costume. In the finale, Williams stands unperturbed in a building being leveled by a wrecking ball. It’s all irresistibly goofy.
In “Hotel Whiskey” (1992), Williams conjures up a mythical retreat where the music and the whiskey never stop flowing. Clint Black sits in for a cameo. “Come on Over to the Country” (1992) is another extravaganza, albeit with fewer famous faces. Here the storyline is that Williams drags some heavy metal addicts out of the city to show them what country living is really like, which, in this case, means frolicking on a lake stocked with curvaceous and compliant babes.
“Everything Comes Down to Money and Love” (1993) is Williams’ most low-keyed and contemplative video. The big man seems vulnerable as he sits in a dark room and musically bemoans the loss of job and affection. Williams takes the role of a country club bartender in “Diamond Mine” (1993). He may be the only bartender in history, though, who insists on wearing a hat while on duty. In this bit of whimsy, a bevy of lusty ladies shed their inhibitions (and wedding rings) when their indifferent husbands go off to play golf. Luckily, there’s a grinning Bocephus there to offer consolation. Actress Faith Ford plays one of the golf widows.
Although Williams regularly topped the charts in the ’80s, he was emphatically dethroned in the ’90s by the young country acts he once celebrated, particularly by the high-riding “Class of ’89” — Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson. His response was the 1994 single and video, “I Ain’t Goin’ Peacefully,” in which he cites his adversaries by name and vows to fight on. While the video is not strikingly memorable, Williams’ slightly soured attitude is. At the end of the clip, Jackson pops by with his fishing pole to lighten the mood.
The catchy, guitar-driven “Hog Wild” (1995) and the zany “Don Juan D’Bubba” (1996) are relatively frothy fare and both variations on the well-trodden themes of country living and loving. “Naked Women and Beer” (2000) is hardly more substantial. But it does feature Kid Rock leering along with his mentor.
“Why Can’t We All Just Get a Longneck” (2004) finds Bocephus in a conciliatory state of mind. He takes the podium at a White House press conference to urge international peace and harmony. In the meantime, delegates of all shapes, sexes, sizes and hues gather in a bar and are soon belting the bejesus out of each other until Hank steps in to spread sweetness and light.
“That’s How We Do It in Dixie” (2006) is yet another tribute to the lure of redneck — notably those given to encasing themselves in cutoffs. Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich pop up to reinforce the message.
There are no chicks or chuckles in “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It’s as bleak a vision on film as it was on record. But the essential Hank Williams Jr. shines through it with as much attitude and self-awareness as he exhibited when he was carousing with all his rowdy friends. Whatever the fashion, Bocephus prefers wearing his own skin. And it still fits fine.