NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sometimes it’s hard to tell who Hank Williams Jr. really is behind the dark sunglasses and the beard covering facial scars.
How much of him is a persona — or a stage presence — is further complicated by the fact that Williams takes on multiple identities, whether it’s Bocephus or Thunderhead Hawkins, who is the centerpiece on his latest album. Sometimes he talks about himself in the third person as if he’s reviewing a movie of his life.
“I’m a Gemini,” said Williams, referencing the astrological sign that is represented by twins as a way of explaining who he is.
Williams has often defied easy characterizations. He is the son of an icon, the elder Hank Williams, whose tragic death left him at a young age with a legacy to both uphold and expand upon. After surviving a near fatal fall off a mountain in 1975, Williams took his own rowdy blue-collar Southern rock sound to new heights, changing the sound of country music.
His new record, “Rich White Honky Blues,” his first album since 2016, gives more insight into the Country Music Hall of Famer’s early years and the influences that would eventually make him a singular artist.
Blues has always been a part of his musical DNA. His father learned to play guitar in Alabama from a Black bluesman named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, but his parents were running a boarding house and had few resources.
“They don’t have money to give him, but they did have food for the guitar lessons,” said Williams of Payne.
After his father’s death at age 29, Williams Jr. was expected at an early age to follow in his footsteps. By the time he was 8, he was performing his late father’s songs on stage, but on the car rides home, he was listening to blues by the likes of Bobby Blue Bland and late-night broadcasts of WLAC, a Nashville-based radio station that played rhythm and blues.“I’m not listening to the Grand Ole Opry,” said Williams. “Never been a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Never will be. Period. And I’ve done pretty good.”
Williams moved away from the traditional country that his father was known for and started merging genres — Delta blues, hard rock, country, soul — alongside bands like the Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
His No. 1 hits include “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Family Tradition” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight,” which later became the opening theme song for “Monday Night Football.” He’s been named entertainer of the year multiple times by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music and won a Grammy for best country vocal collaboration.
But he also has become headline fodder for his boisterousness and brashness, especially in his later years. He’s not quiet about his conservative political beliefs, likes singing about God, guns and the South. His comments once cost him the “Monday Night Football” intro spot.
His new record continues to mythologize the macho boogie-woogie man, even as he has reached his 70s. The album is a sexualized romp through X-rated blues material by Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters, as well as Williams’ own original tunes. Recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, the session musicians include electric slide guitarist Kenny Brown, bassist Eric Deaton, drummer Kinney Kimbrough and Auerbach on guitar.
“We understood each other pretty quick,” said Williams. “I got over there with Kenny and them and Dan, and it was just like pouring water out of a cup. It went pretty smooth and we knocked it out in two and a half days.”
Ken Levitan, Williams’ longtime manager, said Auerbach, a Grammy-winning producer and one half of the rock duo The Black Keys, was just the right fit for Williams, drawn together because of their knowledge of the blues.
“There are matches that just work very, very well,” Levitan said. “And this one has worked extremely well.”
Williams added his own off-the-cuff lyrical riffs to the songs, including sometimes crude remarks about women as the band snickers in the background.
“We say a few dirty words. Several dirty words,” Williams said with a smile. “This is Thunderhead Hawkins, south Alabama, Mississippi juke joint. And that’s exactly how it sounds and how it feels.”
But for all the bravado that Williams displays, he can’t escape his own heartbreak as his family continues to endure tragedy.
Williams’ eldest daughter Kate died in a car accident at age 27 in 2020, just months before it was announced he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then his wife, Mary Jane Thomas, whom he married in 1990, died in March after a medical emergency at a Florida spa.
The last track on the album “Jesus Won’t You Come By Here,” the only religious song on the record and penned by Lightnin’ Hopkins, was a song Williams loved for decades. After all the debaucherous blues, he sings, “Jesus, won’t you come by here/Down on my knees to pray,” like a sinner on Sunday.
He can’t bring himself to sing the song live now following his wife’s death.
“I loved that song 40 years ago. And still do love it,” Williams said, his words catching. “But I’m not going to be doing it live. Can’t do it. I’m pretty damn tough. I can do a lot. I can’t do that right now. Now you got the answer.”
“Hank’s had a very rough couple of years,” Levitan said. “At least in retrospect, (the song) has a huge significance at this point.”
Williams doesn’t like modern country record promotion, having little patience for interviews. He has an private jet waiting to take him back to his home a couple of hours outside of Nashville near Kentucky Lake and he made it clear he’s done talking.
“For everything that’s happened, I take a pretty positive attitude. But that song is wonderful,” he said. “The whole thing is getting a lot of attention. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. It’s getting a lot of attention, folks. I guess you would call me an attention-getting blues man. Bye.”
And Thunderhead Hawkins left the room.
Follow Kristin M. Hall on Twitter.com at https://Twitter.com/kmhall