Poor Hank, Jr.; he can’t get any respect. While his long-dead father has become safely enthroned as country music’s reigning potentate, Bocephus has come dangerously close to becoming the palace fool. Daddy made his name with intelligence and vulnerability; Hank, Jr. more often than not with belligerence and hillbilly bluster. When people think of Hank Williams, Sr., they think of the cutting pathos of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”; when they think of Hank Williams, Jr., they are assaulted by the memory of processed drums and a way-too-excited voice asking the world if it’s “ready for some football.”
This, at least, is part of the story. The whole story is a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting, as demonstrated on The Best of Hank Williams, Jr.; The Millennium Collection. It features 12 of his most popular songs from 1964 to 1976, showcasing his evolution from young Hank, Sr. impersonator to abysmal country-pop balladeer, and finishing with the first stirrings of individuality in his first great song, “Living Proof”. What emerges is a picture of an obviously talented young man striving to define himself against the image of a larger-than-life father whose presence haunts every nook and cranny of his life.
His first hit, on his father’s label, was a cover of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, his father’s song, which he sang in a close approximation of Hank’s voice while wearing Hank’s clothes and singing for Hank’s aging fans. His second hit, “Standing in the Shadows”, was a plainly pitiful declaration of his total reliance on Dad’s legend. “I know that I’m not great / and some say I imitate / Anymore it doesn’t matter / I’m just doing the best I can / After all I’m standing in the shadows / Of a very famous man.” He goes on to narrate a reverent story about his life as a touring tribute to Hank Sr., ending with a description of the son onstage, communing with the ghost of the father while the crowd roars. “Just listen to that crowd,” he says to Heavenly Hank, and one imagines an angel-winged Hank Williams cupping an ear and leaning down from the clouds. It’s a sad song, in every way, and what’s saddest is the sense of defeat that pervades it: before his career had hardly started he seemed doomed to “stand in the shadows”.
What’s disappointing about this collection is that, for whatever reason, it stops just before Hank, Jr. made his dramatic break from the role that was imposed on him. Junior’s 600-foot tumble down a Montana mountainside in August of 1975 has become a part of country legend, and the Hank, Jr. that came out of the hospital, wearing shades and a beard to hide his reconstructed face, was a different man. The album he’d finished just before the fall, Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends had suggested where he might go, but after the fall it was official: he had become Nashville’s rebel son, playing hard country and singing about getting “Whiskey-bent and Hell-bound”. In doing so he helped destroy the false idol of Hank Williams, Sr. Nashville had struggled to uphold—Hank as Bland, Beatific Country Saint—by showing that the Hank Williams spirit doesn’t involve simpering imitations but innovation, recklessness, and the blues.
Some truly great music came out of those years, before self-parody, Monday Night Football, and the ‘80s took their toll, but this collection is mainly of interest to those who want to hear the awkward sounds of Junior trying to find himself. There are some good moments along the way, to be sure: “Cajun Baby”, one of Hank Sr.‘s unrecorded lyrics, comes to life with Cajun fiddles and a great vocal delivery, and Hank, Jr. shows a surprising command of rhythm and blues on his cover of “I’ve Got a Right to Cry”, a 1946 obscurity. Too many of the songs, though, are middle-of-the-road country tunes plagued by the syrupy strings and backing vocals that dominated Nashville through the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s. It’s only with the album’s last song, “Living Proof”, that one can hear the Hank Williams, Jr. whose hard-hitting, rock-inflected breed of country would help bury that kind of sound for years. It’s a remarkable piece of work, a brave self-analysis and statement of intent: “When I sing them old songs of Daddy’s / Seems like every one comes true / Lord please help me / Do I have to be / The living proof.” Later in the song he calls up the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Horton, and Lefty Frizzell, all of whom, like his father, died early deaths, and it’s moving to hear Junior declare that he doesn’t want to “pay that price”.
“Don’t let my son ever touch a guitar”, he asks God, wishing perhaps that his father had made the same plea for him. This prayer, of course, was not granted: Hank Williams III is now very much a part of the family tradition, another Williams defining himself against and around the family name, courting and defying it at the same time. If nothing else, The Best of Hank Williams, Jr.: The Millennium Collection is a testament to how one life powerfully lived can carry across the generations, and how both the sins and the blessings of the father are carried on the backs of the sons.