Liam McManus

Hank Williams, Jr.: Old School, New Rules

Hank Williams, Jr.: Old School, New Rules

If someone had handed me an unmarked CD with this music on it, I would’ve sworn that this was some kind of very well-produced parody of Southern culture and Tea Party politics. It is quite simply a pure distillation of left wing America’s deepest fears about the right-wing, and it only confirms that those fears are well founded as it swims in rampant nationalism, xenophobia and ignorance and dresses up oppression as freedom. For members of the right wing of American politics, I can only imagine that this album is a neat summary of all of their views regarding God, land, and country — a beautiful tribute to patriotism and to the self, a masterpiece that neatly sums up red America’s hopes, dreams, and struggles.

As the press release states, the legend is back. “People know I’m gonna say exactly what I think,” Jr. proudly warns, like one of these annoying idiots who makes sure people know that he speaks his mind and isn’t afraid to tell the bitter truth. And of course, what that person sees as a type of forthrightness, others simply see as being an attention-craving jackass. And that is the essence of Jr.’s new album. Old School, New Rules is Bocephus’s attempt at making a grand, sweeping political manifesto. The problem is that his knowledge and understanding of political issues is perfunctory at best.

Over the course of 12 songs, he rails against anything and everything, un-ironically attacking things that seem to be in his best interests to praise (despite the unspoiled landscape on the cover, he goes after the EPA, despite the prominent FBI anti-piracy warning on the back cover, he basically tells the government to keep its nose out of his business). What he is aching for is essentially that all-American ideal of individualism. Unfortunately, it ends up being the dangerous kind of individualism that has been a deeply ingrained piece of American culture for almost the total history of the country, first addressed in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”. What many Americans sees as a respect and reverence for the individual, Tocqueville saw as a compromise.

The powers-that-be were always perfectly willing to let people be whoever they wanted to be as long as they stayed stupid and servile. Hank Jr., for all his bravado of not being tread upon (a phrase he sings dozens of times over the course of the album) is, in effect, nothing more that a loud mouthpiece for the right wing. His thoughts and feelings are nothing more than the reductive regurgitations of Fox News et al that he tries to pass off as some invigorated declarations of free will and patriotism. What they are in reality is quite different than what he intends; they display the absolute hypocrisy this kind of political thought.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you who don’t remember, there was quite a kerfuffle towards the tail end of last year when Jr. made some comments on “Fox & Friends” in which, if he didn’t directly compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, it was certainly implied. As a result, ESPN decided to sever its ties with Jr., whose song “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” was used as the opening song for “Monday Night Football” since 1989. ESPN, not interested in courting political controversy, parted ways with Jr., or as he puts it in the liner notes for this album, “ESPN decided I had NO right to Freedom of Speech nor did I have any First Amendment rights.” You read that correctly, ESPN took BOTH of those two unrelated things away. A political science scholar, he is not. As a matter of fact, Williams goes on to chastise liberalism; “Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln would be ashamed and saddened by the Left Wing Democrat Party”. Well, if we take into account that Lincoln was a Republican and Jefferson was part of the Democratic-Republican Party, Williams is 25% correct.

But anyway, ESPN tread on him (didn’t he say not to do that?) and trampled his rights. That’s one way of looking at it. The other is that ESPN is a business, and in our glorious capitalist society, businesses get to decide who they do their business with and no one can tell them otherwise, kind of like how Jr. gets to do what he wants and no one can tell him otherwise, ’cause this is America. So ESPN’s decision was actually a testament to the American free-market capitalism that Jr. loves so much. And for the record, Jr. did apologize for his comments. ESPN refused to take him back, which only incensed him further. So, Jr. is like a teenager who is dumped, begs to be taken back and is refused, and then shouts “Fine! I don’t need you anyway!” and then goes off an writes a song about what a bitch his ex-girlfriend is. Jr. took it hard and wrote an album-length rebuttal to his dismissal.

Like so many before him who have given in to that pernicious sin of pride, Jr. steadfastly refuses to fully admit that he dug his own grave with ESPN. Instead, he doubles down on stupidity and paints himself as the victim of the whole affair. And boy, ESPN and all the liberal media elites are gonna be sorry, because as he says in “The Cow Turd Blues”, “There’re some things in this country you don’t mess with, and I am blessed to be on that short list”. And in case you’re wondering, Jr. himself is the cow turd in the titular metaphor, which therefore makes his bullshit macho posturing totally appropriate.

How deluded must someone be to paint himself as the victim when he is quite clearly the aggressor? When he goes around picking fights and calling out people who weren’t bothering him in the first place, how dare he pretend that someone is stepping on him? This is another bizarre trait of political fanatics; the attempt to be victimized. And this is, of course, just one more piece of American mythology. By making oneself into the victim, you essentially become the underdog. And rooting for the underdog is an American tradition dating back to the Revolution when America itself was the underdog — a colony attempting to shake off the throes of the biggest empire in the world. Don’t tread on me! It is, of course, also one of the central tenets of Biblical literalism, as the actual religion of Jr. and his ilk is one that worships the ultimate victim, a man who was executed in the most grisly manner imaginable simply because he loved everyone.

Therefore, playing the victim card is too good to pass up and is a simple way to illicit sympathy for not just Jr., but his entire political message. Turning himself into a victim is also another form of hypocrisy on the album. On the one hand, this is Hank Motherlovin’ Jr., the roughest and the toughest. You don’t mess with him. And on the other hand, Jr. is object of countless forms of abuse. He is the poor, tired, wretched refuse struggling to breathe free. The martyr, the Christ, etc. Yet another example of cognitive dissonance in Jr.’s worldview.

And how about the willful ignorance of placing the blame for America’s economic woes on Obama’s head as he does in “Who’s Taking Care Of Number One”, completely forgetting that George W. Bush most certainly had a hand in that. Nope. It’s all the fault of Nobama, whom he calls out by name multiple times throughout the album. Dubya who?

Jr.’s xenophobia reeks of hypocrisy throughout the album. On “Who’s Taking Care Of Number One” he explicitly states that he “don’t give a damn about Iran or the Middle East” (as if they’re two totally unrelated places) and in the very next song, “That Ain’t Good” he seems more sympathetic, singing about having to explain the violence of this troubled part of the world to his children, and “why did all those people have to die?” To which he lamentably responds that he doesn’t know. Why didn’t he simply say that he doesn’t give a damn? In the former song, he calls out Mexico as being an unworthy receptor of American foreign aid. Elsewhere, in the ridiculously melodramatic “We Don’t Apologize For America” (where once again, his knowledge of history is displayed with the line “No nation’s lost more men than Uncle Sam”), he continues his tirade against the rest of the world by suggesting that Mexico is a haven for all of the “America haters”. And yet the track “Three Day Trip” very clearly owes its overall sound and inspiration to Latin music. Jr. even speaks a little Mexican in the outro of the song. And in case the hypocritical xenophobia isn’t enough, in this same song Jr. indulges in quite a bit of casual misogyny when he suggests you “get a girl you know who’s cocked and ready to go”, and referring to his own ladyfriend as “barato” (Spanish for cheap) and a “bitch”, made all the more disturbing in light of the 2006 charge wherein he assaulted a hotel waitress. By this point it is starting to look as though Jr. really doesn’t care for anyone who is in any way unlike him; white, Christian, male, Republican, and Southern.

While it’s true that there is nothing explicitly racist here, the implied racism is evident. But that’s nothing new for Jr. Years ago he came out with a song called “If The South Woulda Won”, where he assures us “We woulda had it made… might even be better off.” In between listing off all the positive effects of a Confederate victory he neglects the fact that ‘if the South woulda won’, African-Americans might still be slaves. Jr. doesn’t address this, or the issue of slavery, of course, but the whole specter of slavery (or ‘states rights’ as apologists like Jr. are apt to say) sticks out like a sore thumb. Wouldn’t that, of course, be the largest difference ‘if the South woulda won’? This is the kind of point-of-view you have to keep in mind when trying to decipher the ideas of a man who sees himself as an arbiter of freedom.

The hypocrisy extends further. America is a great land, it is like a religion unto itself with its own set of deities and important figures like Uncle Sam, the brave men and women of the armed forces and the small-town, big-dreaming entrepreneur who is “constantly punished, taxed, and regulated by the federal government” as he puts it. And yet, America is horrible, filled with people looking to undermine good old American values and work ethic and threats lurking around every corner in the form of the media, liberals, foreign powers, terrorists, and the government. “This country sure as hell been goin’ down the drain… United Socialist States of America, how do you like that name?” he asks us on “Keep The Change”. So which is it? Is America a wonderful place or a horrible place? Because, judging by all the complaints that Jr. has put on this one album, America seems like a really crappy place to have to live. For a self-proclaimed patriot, he spends an awful lot of time denigrating the U.S. of A.

Arguably the most offensive track, in light of Wall Street pumping out scandals at a rate faster than stock tips, is “Stock Market Blues”, wherein Jr. views the whole broken economic system as a kind of poker game where you can “meet some classy ladies and start drinkin’ champagne”. As he tells the story of a small-town man getting mixed up with big-time investors, he ends the tale with a shrugging attitude when his protagonist ends up losing all the money, as if the stock markets are run by divine intervention (the invisible hand, right?), where if something goes wrong, its just part of God’s plan rather than a deliberate attempt to fleece people out of their life’s worth as it has basically been revealed. But of course, to acknowledge that would be an affront to the system of American free-market capitalism, a term that has the words ‘America’ and ‘free’ in it, so it must be good, right?

One thing that needs to be addressed is the pompous and ludicrous posturing that Jr. revels in, and succeeds in getting away with, due to the country music standby of ancestor worship (how many country songs have referenced, or ‘paid homage’ to earlier country music, a la Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery”, how many country songs have been written about something the singer’s daddy taught him?). He seems to think that his opinion should be given more credence than it is actually worth because he is the son of Hank Williams, one of the men who pioneered country music and perhaps more than any other figure in its history, defined the genre. Mix this in with the whole notion of ancestor worship, and you have an entire culture that cluelessly indulges Williams’s ego for the simple fact that his pa was a great man, and just like a son taking over the farm from an ailing patrician, Williams, Jr. is (and has been for decades) swiftly, unquestioningly inserted into the void despite the fact that, based purely on his merits as a songwriter, Williams, Jr. is most definitely not his father’s son (strangely though, his own son Hank III, is fantastic. Maybe talent skips a generation?).

The blatant references to Williams, Sr. are not just peppered throughout the album, they are dropped like bombs. Not only do we have a cover of Sr.’s “You Win Again” (which pales in comparison to the original, obviously), not only do we have the duet with Brad Paisley, “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams”, but we have the album opener “Take Back The Country”. This musical abomination marries Jr.’s nationalistic sentiments with samples of Sr.’s own original recording of “Move It on Over”. It is a sickening display of hitching a ride and co-opting the music of someone who isn’t around to approve or disapprove of this misappropriation. Jr. would probably say “Dad would’ve wanted it that way,” but let’s remember that ‘Dad’ died when Jr. was only three years old. Every time Jr. talks about himself being Sr.’s son, all it really does is reinforce his own lack of worth as an artist of individual merit. Not a good idea when half the country already thinks you’re an idiot without even listening to the album to confirm the fact.

His thievery of previous material is not just limited to his father’s work. On “We Don’t Apologize for America”, he directly lifts an entire chorus from Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me”. Strangely, Haggard himself provides backing vocals, but is not given a songwriting credit. Haggard also guests on the least offensive track on the album, the closer “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”, a song that sticks to Jr.’s buffoonish, ‘drunk uncle at a family barbecue’ strengths.

The almost-title track “Old School” could’ve been an actually good song, a nostalgic trip through the years of his career and his bump-ins with various other revered singers and groups from Cash to Dolly and so forth. And it would be just that if not for the fact that it is surrounded by songs that pound like a jackhammer with the message “I’m Hank Williams, Jr., dammit. You know, son of Hank Williams, Sr.?” By the way, did you know that his first name is actually Randall, and Hank is his middle name? So rather than honoring his father by using the name he gave him, Jr. decided to cash in. So unfortunately instead of a song that acts as a walk down memory lane, we get another song that displays Jr.’s ego, one that gets by based purely on who he’s related to and who he knows rather than who he is. He sings “One look at me and you can tell my music’s true” and of course, just like the constant reminders of his lineage, it makes him sound like someone desperate for affirmation of any kind. A real artist, a real musician, never has to remind people in song that he has some musical worth. The music is supposed to do that for him. One could almost feel bad for Jr., knowing that he will never escape from the shadow of his father’s legacy, nor will he ever eclipse his father in terms of musical accomplishment. Yes, one could feel bad for him, if not for the fact that he conducts himself like one of the biggest jackasses on the planet.

So most of the criticisms here are of the album’s lyrical content as opposed to its musical content, and for good reason; the music of all of these songs (with the exception of the Latin-tinged “Three Day Trip”) is the same old mid-tempo three-chord stuff that makes up most modern mainstream country music with very few notable exceptions. Every change, every melody is a cliche. The playing itself is only occasionally interesting to listen to. Brad Paisley’s guitar solo on “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams” is nice, but no better than on his own superior albums. The other solos are a barrage of trite noodling. The only thing on the album suggesting any sense of post-elementary compositional method is the ‘truck driver’s gear change’ modulation, which, while much more sophisticated that a simple folk chord progression, has itself become a terrible cliche in country music over the past fifty or sixty years. So anyone looking for a new and thrilling musical journey is encouraged to look elsewhere. But musical sophistication is not the point; Jr. knows his audience, and they aren’t the kind of people who want anything too arresting or challenging. This music, lyrically as well as compositionally, is meant to comfort the listener and reinforce what they already know and love in terms of music as well as morals.

The album, as a musical statement, and as an artistic statement, is completely worthless. As a document of one-half of the cultural disparity in this country, though, it is completely invaluable, and perhaps that alone is worth giving it a thorough listen. Anyone who watches Fox News and/or listens to talk radio wondering how in the hell the pundits can say with a straight face all of the outlandish things they say will be scratching their heads here as well. Listening to this album, however, will not actually unlock the reasoning behind such thoughts and expressions. Hank Jr. is part of an entire section of culture that is perpetuated by the Dunning-Kruger effect. This cross-section of Americans remain willfully ignorant (a tradition of anti-intellectualism is another crucial piece of their idea of American identity), and it is this lack of searching inquiry that allows them to hold opinions that conflict with each other and to have thoughts that stand in direct contrast to their own self-interest while effectuating the desires of their own oppressors. Jr., whether he realizes it or not, and despite all of his supposed love for freedom and liberty is nothing but a mouthpiece for such economic, cultural and political oppression which, like his contemporaries, celebrates the culture that has kept people underneath the thumbs of others, and convinces people not to bite the hand that feeds, but nuzzle the hand that strikes. And it is only too appropriate that he was born into his position as Sr.’s son, rather than earning his position in country music himself. It directly mirrors the hegemony of American capitalism, the Walton family, the Kochs, and yes, the Romneys. How appropriate, then, that such an album be released in an election year, when the central issue in American politics today is economic exploitation. Unfortunately, the kind of people who enjoy and celebrate the lyrics, tone and message of this album are likely the same ones who will race to the polls to make sure they are further exploited under the guise of liberty and freedom. After all, that’s just the American way.

This is truly a fascinating album, but for all the wrong reasons. One could spend days dissecting the broader picture being painted by Jr. here, and still come up short due to the fact that he is an unstable personality, and applying rationality to something so clearly irrational will never, ever work. For anyone who isn’t already a fan of Jr. or of mainstream country music, the best way to appreciate this album might be to view it as one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of things. But even then, keep in mind that for something to be so bad it’s good, it has to be really, really bad first. Which this album definitely is.

A lesson to all those black metal bands out there trying to scare people; this is how you really do it. The fact that there are legions of fans who actually take Hank Williams, Jr. seriously, and the fact that he passes off this insanity as speaking with conviction and from the heart is scarier than anything you guys will ever do.