Hank Williams Jr: The Outlaw Bocephus Who Made Nashville Respect Him
Photo of Hank Williams Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
For the son of Hank Williams, one of the most important figures in country music, life should have been easy. Or at least that’s how the public perceived it. Hank Williams Jr. was born with a set of expectations placed on his shoulders that sent him on a search for his own voice throughout his 20s. He spent the ‘70s whiskey-bent and hell-bound, carrying the torch for outlaw country even as his rowdy friends were settling down. He managed to survive drugs, alcohol, and falling off a mountain to become one of the best selling country music singers of the 20th century. He’s outspoken, he’s polarizing, He’s Hank Williams Jr.
He was only four when his father died
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana on May 26, 1949, Hank Williams Jr. only had four years with his father before the legend passed away in the back of a Cadillac from heart failure caused by the combination of alcohol, morphine, and chloral hydrate. In their brief time together, Williams nicknamed his son “Bocephus” after Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield's ventriloquist dummy.
At eight years old Williams' mother Audrey put him out on the road as a kind of Hank Williams tribute act. Hank Jr. was dressed like his father, he travelled in the very Cadillac in which his father died, and he played with his father’s backing band for up to 200 nights a year.
Essentially drafted into performing as the ghost of his father, Williams began acting out in similar ways. He was attracted to booze and pills, and he married when he was only 17 years old. Six years later he was briefly married to a woman named Gwen who gave birth to Hank Williams III. Williams leaned into his drug and alcohol addiction and began walking out of gigs and attempting to distance himself from the image of his father.
In the ‘60s he searched for his own sound
After signing a recording contract with MGM in 1966 Williams cut ties with his mother. No longer happy to sing his father’s songs, he tried to forge his own way through the landscape of country music. Initially he kept to the style of honky-tonk that his father created but after a move from Nashville to Alabama he started to incorporate more roots and southern rock elements into his sound. He didn’t realize it at the time but there were a handful of other country musicians doing the same thing, trying to create a grittier, more realistic sound within the confines of the genre that they loved.
A fall from a mountain changed his life forever
By 1975 Williams had five Top Ten records under his belt and he was country royalty, so it wasn’t strange that he decided to head off to Montana for a fishing trip with his buddies. While hiking up Ajax Peak on August 8, 1975 the snow beneath the country singer collapsed and he fell 500 feet onto a rock basin, causing multiple skull and facial fractures. Later, a witness claimed that it looked like Williams had taken an axe to the face.
Williams and his friends were so far away from civilization that it took six hours for him to receive medical attention. He lost his teeth, his brain was exposed to the elements, and one eye was hanging from his face. By all accounts he should have died on that mountain.
After two years of recovery, several reconstructive surgeries, and speech rehabilitation Williams grew a beard and started wearing sunglasses everywhere. It's said that his signature look hides scarring from the accident, though that might be an exaggeration.
Following a brush with death Williams embraced the outlaw life
Williams was already existing on a steady diet of booze and pills when he fell off the side of a mountain in 1975, but during his recovery his addiction to painkillers only worsened. Rather than put a stop to his creative output his addictions fueled his songwriting and he turned from covering his father and singing love songs to writing about the realities of his life including a suicide attempt.
The album Whiskey Bent And Hellbound went to number five on the country charts and eventually went platinum -- the first million seller of his career. The country establishment was openly hostile to outlaw country musicians, be they Hank Jr., Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson or Merle Haggard, but they were generating sales that were impossible to ignore. It may seem like Williams was chasing a trend to stay relevant, but he was friends with many of his outlaw contemporaries from his early days with Audrey Williams’ Caravan of Stars. He explained:
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.
Williams says that his best songs came easy
From 1979 to 1990, Williams placed 30 Top Ten singles on the Billboard Country charts, and eight of those went to number one. That kind of output is astounding for any artist, and Williams is adamant that the songs that hit the hardest come to him quickly and don’t take long to get down on tape. He told CMT:
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.
In the 1980s Williams became the controversial voice of Monday Night Football
Aside from his massive success in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s Williams was introduced to an entirely new audience when his 1981 hit “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” was transformed into “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” in 1984 as the theme song for Monday Night Football. The song was updated routinely through the ‘90s earning Williams Emmy Awards for the track from 1991 to 1994.
Williams plunged himself feet first into controversy on October 3, 2011, while appearing on Fox & Friends. While speaking about a golf game where President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner played against Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Governor John Kasich, Williams referred to it as "one of the biggest political mistakes ever” because it was like “Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.”
When pressed about his less than nuanced statement comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, Williams explained that he was using an extreme comparison in order to draw focus to the pointlessness of those four men playing golf together when members of the working class are barely making ends meet. He explained:
Working-class people are hurting – and it doesn't seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job – it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.
Regardless of his explanation of his statement his song was removed from Monday Night Football for the next six years. In that time Williams continued to make polarizing and ineloquent statements about President Obama. This may seem like a strange end to Williams’ career, but for good or for bad he’s never been one to do what people expect.
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