Hank Williams, Jr.: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Isaac Sweeney

Isaac has taught college English, and he has a master's degree in English with a creative writing concentration.

Hank Williams, Jr., emerged from his father's shadow to lend a truly unique sound to country and southern rock music. Many of his songs, along with his charismatic persona, have withstood the test of time.

Early Life

Hank Williams, Jr.'s unconventional musical style and uncanny talent made him one of the most popular country artists of the 1980s. He is still an icon of his genre decades after he emerged from his father's shadow.

His father, Hank Williams, Sr., died in 1953 at the age of 29; the elder Hank Williams' mark on country music and other genres was profound and transformative. Hank Williams' only son, Randall Hank Williams, was 3 when Williams, Sr. died. When he was 8, Randall - nicknamed Bocephus by his father - began performing as Hank Williams, Jr., as a small copy of his father. It was at once a gimmick and a tribute. Williams, Jr. sang his father's songs in his father's style. When he was 9, he began touring with his mother, Audrey Williams, and others.

By the time he was a teenager, Hank Williams, Jr. had learned from some greats. Earl Scruggs taught him some banjo. Jerry Lee Lewis taught him some piano. He learned the electric guitar, but he didn't dare play it on stage. On stage, he played daddy's songs as daddy would've played them. When he was 11, for example, he played the Grand Ole Opry, playing his father's 'Lovesick Blues.' It was the same song Hank, Sr. played in his Opry debut a month after Hank, Jr. was born. At 15, Hank Williams, Jr.'s version of his father's 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues' reached number 5 on the country charts. That year, Williams, Jr. signed a recording contract worth $300,000 a year. Around this same time, he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

A Change in Musical Direction

Hank Williams, Jr., was in his 20s in the 1970s, and country music was changing. Waylon Jennings and the Marshall Tucker Band, among many others, relied heavily on the influences of rock and blues. Williams, Jr. liked this new style, but the fans wanted more of his father's music in his father's style. He was torn and depression set in. The alcohol and pills, on which he relied heavily, didn't help his depression. In 1974, he hit bottom and attempted suicide. He was 23.

Luckily for the music industry, he failed in his attempt. The suicide attempt sparked a move from Nashville to Cullman, Alabama, where Hank Williams, Jr., contemplated his direction in music and in life. There, he recorded Hank Williams Jr. and Friends. It was a significant deviation from his earlier recordings, which were largely impersonations of his father. This album featured collaborations with Waylon Jennings and others who were considered 'outlaws' in country music.

He seemed to finally be comfortable with the direction in which he was heading. After recording the album, Williams, Jr. was preparing to tour and, in 1975, he went mountain climbing in Montana. He fell almost 450 feet down Ajax Peak and suffered serious injuries; among them were a split skull and a crushed face. But he lived. His recovery took 2 years and involved multiple surgeries, as well as relearning how to speak and sing. He grew a beard and donned dark sunglasses and a cowboy hat to hide some of his scars and disfigurements. The look has become one of his trademarks. He emerged with a trademark sound as well, and Waylon Jennings produced his next album, The New South.

Hank Williams, Jr. performing in Alabama, 2006
Hank Williams, Jr.

Commercial Success

Radio was somewhat resistant to Hank, Jr.'s new sound, but they couldn't avoid playing him when, in 1979, he released the album Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, which spawned multiple hit singles. Some of his most popular songs from this era include 'A Country Boy Can Survive,' 'Texas Women,' 'Dixie on My Mind,' 'All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down),' 'All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight,' 'There's a Tear in My Beer,' and 'Born to Boogie.'

In the late 80s, Hank Williams, Jr. won Entertainer of the Year awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. In 1989, a remix of 'All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight' became the anthem for ABC's Monday Night Football. The song played before every Monday night NFL game for 22 years, with the lyric 'Are you ready for some football?' becoming a catchphrase for Williams, Jr. and for Monday Night Football.

In October of 2011, Monday Night Football and Hank Williams, Jr. ended their long relationship because of remarks Williams, Jr. made comparing President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. In an interview with Fox News, Williams, Jr. had said Obama and House Speaker John Boehner playing golf together was like 'Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.' Williams, Jr. later issued statements calling the remarks 'extreme.' Monday Night Football and Hank Williams, Jr. both claim responsibility for ending the relationship.

Hank, Jr.'s popularity waned in the 1990s among some controversial political stances and country music's changing sounds, but he still records and tours. He has married three times and has five children. His first son, Shelton Hank Williams, plays under the name Hank III. Holly Williams has also garnered a bit of a musical following. Hillary Williams works in the music industry as well.

Signature Songs

Part of finding his own voice in country music involved deeply personal lyrics, sometimes even about changing directions. For example, in 'Family Tradition,' released in 1979, Williams, Jr. sings, 'Country music singers have been a real close family/But lately some of my kinfolks have disowned a few others and me./I guess it's because I kind of changed my direction./Lord I guess I went and broke their family tradition.' 'Family Tradition' is also a tribute to his father. He sings, 'I am very proud of my daddy's name/Although his kind of music and mine ain't exactly the same.'

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