Saturday, June 23, 2012

Trinomials: Hank Williams Junior

Hank Williams Jr.: Mobile Boogie


What a difference a single word can make. Hank Williams: The architect of all that is right with country music, the tortured soul who grabbed listeners with his songs of pain and sorrow, good times and wild times, with an aching voice and a poet's gift for language. Hank Williams Junior....well, not quite in that league.

That's the paradox of the "Junior" suffix. Your dad's name may kick open a few doors for you. But, it dooms you to a life of being measured against your forbearer's legend -- and usually not favorably.

Technically, he's not even "Hank Williams Jr." His real name is Randall Hank Williams (as you may know from the many times he proclaimed "this is rockin' Randall Hank" during the musical introductions to Monday Night Football), dad was born Hiram King Williams.

While Hank Williams Jr. is no Hank Williams, I would argue with anyone claiming that Junior made it solely on his father's name. Certainly, the father's legend helped the son land a recording contract while he was still young. Hank Jr. released his first record at age 15. Throughout the '60s and early '70s, he put together a string of mid-charting hits. Williams the younger's voice doesn't much resemble his father's, nor did his records from this period, which were pure Nashville countrypolitan. But, countrypolitan has its place, and Williams's output compares favorably to what was played on country radio at the time.

Then, in 1975, he suffered a near-fatal mountain-climbing accident in Montana. Williams emerged not only with a new face (replacing the one smashed against the rocks of Ajax Mountain), but a new sound -- influenced by Waylon Jennings, the Charlie Daniels Band and southern blues. As he healed, he recorded sporadically. Those albums were impressive, particularly Hank and Friends -- featuring musicians from CDB and Marshall Tucker -- The New South and One Night Stands. ("Mobile Boogie" is taken from that latter release.)

As Williams recovered and returned to a frenetic pace of recording and touring, that level couldn't be maintained. His records became predictable and, well, dumb. The right-wing form of political correctness seeped into his writing, and he also displayed a predilection for singing songs about himself and the challenges of being Hank Sr.'s son. Hank Williams Jr. still occasionally puts out interesting material -- 2002's Almeria Club Recordings is a fine amalgam of country and blues. But mostly his output for the past three decades is forgettable good ol' boy stuff.

Maybe Hank Sr. would have faced a similar decline had he survived into his 30s and beyond. Or maybe it's a trinomial jinx. The offspring who have followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams Jr. -- Hank III and Holly Williams -- perform with only one space in their names and have put out great music.

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