If you like humility in your performers, don’t go talking to Hank Williams Jr. He knows he’s a musical force of nature, and he speaks with all the cockiness and self-assurance his monumental sales and longevity have earned him.
On a recent summer morning, he chatted with CMT.com from his office in western Tennessee about his latest album, 127 Rose Avenue. It is, as he says, “a gem,” a collection with all the familiar Hank Jr. touchstones: tributes to his famous father, some high-energy blue-collar blusters and quieter nods here and there to the ladies.
Williams penned five of the 11 songs. The CD’s title refers to the senior Williams’ boyhood home in Georgiana, Ala., a residence that now serves as a museum. (The actual address is 127 Rose Street.)
While Williams is enormously proud of the album, he boils over at the first mention of his label, Curb Records, and its owner, Mike Curb. “You want to know the bottom line?” he snaps. “This is my last album [for Mike Curb], and he’s history.”
He charges that the label has failed to give him the artistic and promotional backing he deserves.
“We will move onward and upward,” he vows. “You just wait. We’ll have a lot to talk about. I’ve had some recording ideas that they didn’t care for. Well, there’s a lot of other labels that do care about it. …
“We’re going to get off this old, dead sinking ship. One thing about it: You can say, ‘The last one he made was damn sure a gem.’ I love 127. We had to do the cover [for the album]. They didn’t do anything. We did everything. …
“They were going to [use] a picture of me from seven years ago when I was 25 pounds heavier. That was going to be the cover. It was ‘Ho hum,’ basically. Well, we didn’t ho-hum this one.”
Contacted later by CMT.com, officials at Curb Records chose not to respond to Williams’ comments.
Back in the 1980s, when he was touring incessantly, Williams used to send his producer song arrangements from the road. Sometimes, for example, he’d just hum or whistle a fiddle part into a tape recorder and let the producer take it from there.
Now that he’s seriously whittled down his touring schedule, he spends more time in the studio working with his current producer, Doug Johnson, and the session musicians.
“Doug says, ‘Man, they get so turned on when they play with you. … They really like a hands-on guy like you that really takes control of the studio.’”
For the most part, Williams relinquished the instrumental tracks to the other musicians. But he plays two guitar parts on his ultra-bluesy version of his dad’s 1950 hit, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”
“I could play on all of them if I wanted to,” he says, “but I had to play blues on that one.” He introduces the song with a quotation from Lightnin’ Hopkins about what that revered bluesman learned from the senior Williams.
One cut on the album that’s sure to get a lot attention is “All the Roads,” a Hank Jr. composition that features the Grascals. Williams says he “absolutely” wrote it to be performed and recorded as a bluegrass song.
“I’ve got my Earl Scruggs Mastertone [banjo] right here,” he boasts. “People don’t realize that part of me. I used to ride my Harley-Davidson Sportster from the 2131 Apartments on Elm Hill Pike [in Nashville] over to Earl Scruggs’ house in Madison to get lessons from the master. And Sonny Osborne [of the Osborne Brothers] helped me a lot. I had the best teachers in the world.”
In “Last Driftin’ Cowboy,” Williams pays homage to Don Helms, the celebrated steel guitarist and longest surviving member of his father’s band. Helms died last year at the age of 81.
“I did my mile and a quarter [walk] this morning,” William muses, “right over here in the hills of West Tennessee. I’m out there with a Labrador and a hickory stick. ‘The Last Driftin’ Cowboy’ came right out of the blue [on one of these walks], the words, the melody, everything.”
The song of which Williams seems the proudest is the dreamy and contemplative “Gulf Shore Road.” If “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” was the snort of a young buck in his prime, “Gulf Shore Road” is the reflection of a wise and contented man in his twilight years.
“‘Gulf Shore Road’ is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever written,” Williams asserts. Then, with a laugh he adds, “and so is ‘All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over to Gulf Shore Road.’”
It was a special moment in the studio when he first introduced the song. “The whole band got quiet,” he recalls. “They just kind of stopped. ‘Cause I go out, and I sit down and I play it live when we’re going to record it.
“Boy, Doug looked at me, and they looked at me. Doug said, ‘I’d have never put the marimbas or the horns on it.’ You got to realize, I’m kind of a producer myself.”
Foragers for lyrical red meat will find it in “Red, White and Pink-Slip Blues,” a lament for America’s unemployed, and “Sounds Like Justice,” a paean to vigilantism, neither of which Williams wrote.
Williams revels in the fact that he’s reached the stage in his career at which he can afford to play only as many shows as he wants to. He says he’s limited himself to around 20 dates a year for the past 10 years.
“Just ask [talent booker] Greg Oswald,” Williams suggests. “He said, ‘Do you know you’re the envy of every artist in town? They say, ‘How in the hell does he pull that s**t off? He makes tons of money, and he does 20 frickin’ shows a year!’ I’m the most blessed guy out there.
“I mean the bottom line is just like Minnie Pearl [said] about Daddy. It’s all around the fishing and hunting. There ain’t a damn bit a difference. She said, ‘You’re a ghost.’ That’s exactly what she told me. ‘You’re a ghost. All [your dad] talked about was, ‘OK, squirrel season is so-and so’ or ‘Croppie season’s so-and-so.’
“[Talent buyers] say, ‘Well, we’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars if you’ll come to Denver.’ I say, ‘S**t no! That’s dove season. I can’t do that.’ And they just look at me like I’m nuts.”
Recently, Williams shared in an achievement that was precious to a man so immersed in family tradition. In the same week 127 Rose Avenue made its bow on the Billboard country albums chart, so did his father’s The Unreleased Recordings: Gospel Keepsakes and his daughter Holly‘s Here With Me.
If there was ever such a simultaneous three-generation rollout before, no one can recall who or when. “That was pretty exciting,” Williams admits.