Hank Williams Jr. wrote nearly every track on his new album, Old School, New Rules, yet in spirit, there were hundreds — if not thousands — of co-writers.
During a recent conversation about the new album, Williams told CMT.com, “I can’t wait to play it for anyone. I don’t care whether they’re in Georgia or Massachusetts. I’m proud of it, and I love it. It’s those fans out there and all of those emails — I put a lot of their thoughts in these songs.”
Of course, Williams doesn’t mince words about Washington, D.C., yet the album runs deeper than that. With his mighty baritone, he sings about wild women (“Three Day Trip”), beer-drinking buddies and — in true Bocephus fashion — his own musical history.
The rowdy first track, “Takin’ the Country Back,” mashes up modern country with the voice of his father. When Hank Williams unexpectedly chimes in with a few lines of “Move It on Over” and “Mind Your Own Business,” the generation gaps are seamlessly fused together.
“It was a religious experience,” Williams says. “That’s his band! That’s not us today. That’s his original! Oh, talk about special. I said, ‘Man, the stars are lined up right on this project.’”
This isn’t the first time they’ve sung together, thanks to the wonders of technology and overdubbed recording tracks. In 1989, they earned a Top 10 single, a CMA Award, an ACM Award and a Grammy for the enduring duet, “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” (The elder Williams died when his son was 3.)
Hank Williams Jr., who was born with the name Randall Hank Williams, was raised by his mother Audrey Williams to essentially portray a younger version of his famous father onstage. The young singer was just 14 years old when he charted his first solo Top 10 hit, a cover of his father’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” in 1964.
During the interview, Williams recalls a funny conversation with Merle Haggard about how Audrey was always trying to add her son to the lineup of those early tours, while Haggard was always wondering how much it was going to cost him.
Haggard and Williams have been friends since the 1960s and share the spotlight on “We Don’t Apologize for America,” which samples Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Williams beams when he recalls how Haggard personally called him to say thanks for sampling the song. Then they reunited to record a fun duet version of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
“There’s something to be learned from that, folks, about artists,” Williams notes. “Not that I run around and listen to myself a whole lot. Because I don’t. I listen to old blues and all. But when I plug this thing in, I’m going to ‘Stay Here and Drink,’ ‘Three Day Trip’ and ‘We Don’t Apologize for America.’ I wear those three out pretty good.”
One of the most poetic songs on the album is “Old School,” in which Williams recollects his early encounters with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Dolly Parton, as well as one special night when he jammed with the Marshall Tucker Band. He says one of his employees that’s been with him for 30 years bawled when he heard the song because the dusty memories came right back to life.
“Who else can say in the opening line: ‘I remember a young Johnny Cash waiting in the wings/Because he’d hand me a cigarette when he’d go out and sing’? Buddy, that opening does it,” Williams says. “And I get to play my piano on there — my Jerry Lee imitation. … I don’t write too many fantasies. Most of them happen.”
Complimented on his economical writing, he invokes his father’s legacy: “That’s so important. I mean, look at daddy. Talk about every word counting, my gosh. Wow! Yeah, that ‘Old School,’ see I’ve had that a long time. I wasn’t going to waste it. Now’s the time for that one!”
Between 1964 and 1975, Williams notched 13 Top 10 singles. But in 1975, a fall from a mountain nearly ended his life, not to mention his career. After the accident, Williams fully embraced his Southern rock influences and stormed back on the charts in 1979 with the now-inescapable “Family Tradition,” one of the most autobiographical anthems in country music history.
A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Williams’ self-penned classics also include “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” and “Born to Boogie.”
Asked who gets to hear his new songs first, Williams says it used to be Merle Kilgore, his late longtime manager, then animatedly acts out a typical exchange:
“What do you think of this brother?”
“Fantastic! That’s a smash!”
Now, Williams says, “You always go to a friend. Someone maybe in the business because when it’s birthed and finished, it has to be sung to someone.”
And does he like the feedback?
“Absolutely,” he insists. “Then the next thing I’m going to do is sit there for a live audience. Boy, when you hear that ‘Aahhh!’ when they’ve never heard it before, that’s a good time.”
He still tours occasionally if it doesn’t interfere with hunting season. Although his presence at country radio has been scarce since the 1990s, he popped up every autumn shouting “Are you ready for some football?!” through TV screens nationwide. Because of a political flap last October, in which he compared President Obama to Hitler, he’s been benched from the gig.
That doesn’t mean he’s lost his most dedicated followers, though. Brad Paisley and Bocephus jam on “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams,” one of the album’s liveliest tracks. Williams also says he’s proud to write back to kids whose parents consider him a role model for speaking his mind. And he remains actively involved with wounded veterans because they fight for freedom of speech.
While he pulls no punches about his politics on Old School, New Rules, he’s unconcerned that people with an opposite viewpoint will be turned off by his candid approach.
“They don’t want to hear that side,” Williams says, “but they’re going to hear it on here.”