In 1980, Hank Williams, Jr. was 30 years old and a 17-year-veteran of the music business. Looking at his surroundings, he didn't quite know what to make of everything. Outlaw country was fading quickly, replaced by a new conglomeration of pretty-boy-suburban-cowboy--soft-rock that some dared to call country music. Rock and roll wasn't doing any better. The synthesizers and disco beats he was hearing sure as hell didn't sound like what Jerry Lee Lewis taught him personally. Most of all, he didn't see where his brand of blues-heavy country-rock fit in.
The urban cowboy movement died off, only to come back with a vengeance a decade later, and Hank ended up becoming one of the most successful artists of the decade. But let's stay in 1980 for a few minutes more, because that is the best point of reference to explain his latest album Old School New Rules which will be released on Tuesday.
"Hey man, them ain't high-heel sneakers," he sang back then, "and they sure don't look like cowboy boots/And that ain't rock 'n' roll you're playin'/And it sure ain't country or rhythm and blues/You're singin' a song about makin' love to your drummer/Well, gay guitar pickers don't turn me on/And we don't all get into Donna Summer/Do you happen to know any old Hank Williams songs?"
In the chorus, he gets to his point. "Cause you see I'm a dinosaur/I should have died out a long time before/Have pity on a dinosaur/Hand me my hat, excuse me, man/But where is the door?"
But somewhere along the line things changed. Bocephus forgot that he was a dinosaur at 30 and became a self-parody at 40. He started following trends that he had a hand in creating. He began hanging out with Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker and delivered songs such as "The F Word" and "Fax Me a Beer." He could have went on like that indefinitely, or at least until Kid Rock found himself out of the industry's favor and had to find himself a younger artist to cling to and younger generations would have had no idea that he was anything other than a bad joke who liked to get drunk.
Then last year, shit blew up. He went on TV and stated an opinion that cost him his long-running job as the voice of Monday Night Football. Then he was invited to play a duet on CMT with faux-outlaw pretty boy Jason Aldean and after surveying the situation said "fuck that."
It was like 1980 all over again. Once again, he found himself asking questions and wondering where he fit in. How long could a man who hasn't released a great album in 25 years sustain a legacy? What happened to the guy who hung out with Johnny Cash and had Waylon Jennings producing his records, while Merle Haggard covered his songs? Who the hell was ESPN to tell him what he could and couldn't say? (After all, he'd been in the entertainment business a lot longer than them.) Who the fuck is this Jason Aldean asshole? And, finally, why does every girl they play on the country station sound suspiciously like Donna Summer?
With all of that going on in his head, he sat down with his pen and his guitar and wrote his best album since Born to Boogie and maybe even his best since The Pressure Is On.
"I remember a young Johnny Cash waiting in the wings," he states four songs into the album, "'Cause he'd hand me his cigarette when he'd go out and sing/And the good ol' Marshall Tucker Band back in '83/It was a special night they asked me come on out and play 'Can't You See'/Dolly was a teenage girl when I first met her/Jerry Lee played rock 'n' roll at my house and I'm proud/I'm from the old school/But I made up my own rules/And I learned a thing or two from some pretty good teachers/My education served me well/One look at me and you can tell/My music's true/A class reunion of the blues/I'm from the old school."
That, friends and neighbors, is what sets this record apart from everything else Hank has released in recent years. That affirmation that he is indeed from the old school and just like Willie and Merle stands no chance at mainstream success and awards. So he may as well just make a good country record and fuck the consequences. He has enough money and the rowdy friends he talked about back then are a lot cooler than Jason Aldean anyway.
The album starts on a far less reflective note than "Old School," though. On "Takin' Back Our Country," Bocephus is downright pissed off at ESPN, EPA regulations, political correctness, Facebook, President Obama, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, all with a ZZ Top-like backing and the ghost of Hank Sr. (literally) in tow.
As a side note, the greatness of Hank Jr. is that he can take a line that you and I both know is beyond sophomoric and turn it into something classic. When you hear the line "Hey Barack, pack your bags, head to Chicago/Take your teleprompter with you so you know where to go," you are well aware that there are far more intelligent criticisms of the President that could be stated, but you still can't help cracking a smile. If you don't, you need to either stop drinking the left-right Kool-Aid or get the stick out of your ass.
On the album's second song, Hank teams up with Brad Paisley for "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams," a honky-tonk number reminiscent of the best tunes on Family Tradition and Whiskey-Bent and Hell-Bound that sounds like a missing track from his first greatest hits album.
On "Cow Turd Blues," he once again addressed the ESPN situation and on "Who's Takin' Care of Number One," lashes out against the warmongers among us, questioning those who would send us to Iran and other countries in the Middle East while leaving our own country on the backburner.
The album's first singe, "That Ain't Good," is a country-rock number that is reminiscent of "I've Been Down" from his High Notes album in 1982, while "Keep the Change" targets ESPN once again, this time adding Fox News to the shit list as well.
A welcome surprise on this album that should leave behind any doubt that Hank has returned to the old school fold is the inclusion of Merle Haggard on two tracks. One is a fun, but not classic, version of Hag's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," while the other may be the worst song on the album. That doesn't matter. It's Merle Fucking Haggard. (Yes, that's really his middle name.)
To be fair, there are a few songs here that don't really stack up to the rest. "Three Day Trip" is a fun song that musically will remind long-time fans of songs like "Ain't Makin' No Headlines." Lyrically, though, it's frequent vulgarity is more suited to Hank3 than Hank Jr.
But the worst song by far is "We Don't Apologize for America." It's not that there's anything wrong with taking pride in your country or supporting the troops. It just makes no sense on any level whatsoever that somebody who would spend 3/4s of an album bashing America's current elected leader and his policies would then take an "if you don't love it, leave it" attitude and suggest that anybody dissatisfied with the current direction of our country should move to Mexico. Sorry, Hank. Leave that shit to Toby Keith next time.
In the end, this album's politics will keep a lot of listeners away. I doubt if Bocephus cares. In my own personal view, he has drank a little too much of the Republican Kool-Aid and has failed to see that both of our major parties are rogue criminal agencies leading us down a path to hell. But his extreme right-wing views are no more of a nuisance than the extreme left-wing views of Steve Earle and the important thing is that he believes what he's saying and delivers those beliefs with passion. What really matters in the end is that Hank's drive and energy are back, hopefully for good.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let's forget the past 25 years. Let's buy this album on vinyl and put it where it belongs, alongside albums like One Night Stands, The New South, Family Tradition, Habits Old and New, and The Pressure is On.
Hank Jr. hasn't made an album this great in nearly three decades and it is a true cause for celebration. I'll stop short of calling this country music's best comeback since Rick Rubin got ahold of Johnny Cash, but it comes really close. If you didn't understand Hank back in his heyday, you'll be even more bewildered now and I don't need to tell you not to pick this one up. But if you are a Hank fan and you're sick and tired of albums like Stormy and Maverick, I have just three words: Bocephus is back!