Hank You Very Much
November 3, 2015
"You're gonna see Bocephus spank some hiney, that's what you're gonna see! I have a whole lot of confidence when I hit the stage, and Eric ain't no beginner, either. How about that?"
Well, that's just awesome!
For those who didn't pick up on the "Bocephus" reference, that was the incomparable, unflappable, unwavering Hank Williams Jr., responding to my question about what we can expect when he and Eric Church launch tonight's (11/4) CMA Awards telecast on ABC-TV, with a live performance of "Are You Ready For the Country?"
As you can see, Hank Jr. has not exactly mellowed with age. Not one damned iota, as a matter of fact. And thanks, Hank, for reassuring me you have confidence, because well ... uh, you know, I was sorta beginning to have my doubts about that.
Said no one ever.
There are a lot of moving parts to this opening sequence, so self-assurance is probably a good thing. Think about it: Hank Jr. and Eric Church (#HankandEric), teaming for a song written by Neil Young that appeared on Young's 1972 "Harvest" album, was then covered by Waylon Jennings in '76, and which doubled as the title track for Waylon's album that same year. All of this, in front of a national television audience, on what the CMA annually touts as, "Country Music's Biggest Night." No pressure.
If there's any doubt as to who conjured up this CMA-opening extravaganza, Hank Jr. will now pour cold water on that, and will add, this has a personal component to it:
"Well, this moving part is the one that picked all that stuff. It's a labor of love, because of Waylon. I'm just gonna tell you the whole thing. There's the Audrey Williams caravan of stars, and I'm maybe 17. I rode [Waylon's] bus. There were two guys on that tour - Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard - and they're arguing over which one of them is gonna make it. You can't make this stuff up. Of course, when [Waylon's version] came out it was the '70s, and I've always loved that song. Then, when I started having some pretty good things happen, suddenly I'm opening shows for Waylon Jennings! So, he's walking on stage, and his opening song is, 'Are You Ready For The Country.' His closing is 'I Don't Think Hank Done It This Way' with me and him standing there and killing the audience! That's where it started. And I said, 'Sometime, when I get the right label and the right support people, I'm gonna do that song.' So here we are. There's nothing but great thoughts, Heaven sent. There's just a more personal connection to this whole thing than most people today can even imagine. I mean, I was just a teenager - but this ain't my first rodeo!"
It's not exactly Eric Church's first one, either. As he reminded me, "I've been at this a while - for 10 years touring and stuff. So I think a lot of it is just earning your way, paying your dues; Hank and I both know that. It's been a long journey for both of us at times. I think we respect each other."
#HankandEric: It's Personal
And how much more perfect could this pairing with Church be? We all know the CMA loves to create collaborations - some that work (Miranda Lambert and Meghan Trainor last year) - some, not so much (Little Big Town, Ariana Grande). But #HankandEric are naturally compatible on a musical - and personal - level. "'Major Moves' is one of my favorite albums of all time," said Church. "I've toured with and played with Hank. I've even hunted with Hank! I've spent personal time with him, and he's a guy that I really respect a lot. He still sings his ass off and plays his ass off, so I'm glad it happened. I'm glad he's going to be back on the radio. I think the radio needs him, this is a great thing."
A perfect thing, says Hank. Jr. "We're actually friends that go out. We go lookin' for Civil War artifacts. He found his first belt buckle with me about three years ago. So that just worked." And Hank Williams Jr. has his choice of anybody he could potentially sing with. "I've got a bunch of guys who have songs with my name in it that my own kids tell me about! Kenny Chesney or Justin Moore, Brantley Gilbert, lots of them. Jason Aldean, even, and there's Kid Rock - I don't even know how many songs he's got with my name. But my kids say, 'Dad, you don't even know! These guys have your name in four songs!' So, they said, 'Man, they really want to sing on this.' And I just said, 'Well, hell yeah!' So that's how it works!"
Tonight's performance is more than just a launch of the CMA awards telecast. It's the re-entry, if you will, of Hank Williams Jr. to Country radio, with "Are You Ready For The Country." When programmers checked their email this morning, the song was already waiting for them, as the lead single for his upcoming album, "It's About Time," via the NASH Icon label. Try not to be shocked here, but Hank Jr. is just as confident about what he does in the studio as he is on stage.
"'It's About Time' is one of my favorites. You know, when you stand in the studio with the engineer, and they turn around say, 'That is a friggin' smash, where did that come from?' It's just from the pen and the paper. It talks about old things and new things. It talks about going down that highway named after my father in Montgomery. But the song is not about nostalgia. 'Mental Revenge' is back out there with Waylon again. 'God And Guns' is another 'Country Boy Can Survive.' You're gonna hear some Southern Rock, you're gonna hear 'Just Call Me Hank,' which is really serious. And when you hear it, you'll understand it. Some really deep, black Gospel-type Blues that went for seven-and-a-half minutes, and the pickers in Nashville said, 'That's the most fun we've had in the studio in 10 years.'"
Okay, but why NASH Icon? In fact, why a label at all anymore?
"Damned good question," roars Hank Jr. "Because I'm gonna go out and do 25 shows a year and sell out everywhere and make plenty of money and sell six-figures in merchandise. That might be one of the strongest fan bases there is ... my people, my fans. They're kind of hard to beat! I'm getting ready to have another Platinum album on that other, old label with basically hardly any support. So, this is something we've all been looking forward to for a long, long time. Real support, real power in the music business, in the radio business, in the marketing business and the downloading business, and in selling product. And that rubs off. [Icon] sent these girls - I mean, they're all like 28 and they've got degrees in Music Marketing from Indiana and Cal, and on and on. And they went and watched the shows and started saying, 'Look folks, this is the real thing. This might be the hottest thing we've been around at this label.' So, naturally, it's a great feeling."
"Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand?"
Back in the '80s, when Hank Jr. dominated the format and won five Entertainers of the Year awards, his music included different influences - Rock, Southern Rock and Traditional Country. So I wondered, when he thinks of Country as a format now, still with elements of Rock, but also infused with R&B and Hip-Hop ... how does he feel about those sounds creeping in - and are they appealing to Hank Jr. as a Country music fan?
"Well, somebody told me, 'You know, you had a hell of a lot to do with this!' Because, I would have singles, and it'd be like, 'Oh my God, that's too Rock! We can't play that!' Back then, it was, 'Oh God! Is he crazy? We can't play that! That's not Country!' And of course, it has gone full-circle now, that's for sure. Is it Pop? Is it '80s heavy metal? Is it? I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Oh, this is no good, and that's no good.' Good is good. And somebody summed it up and said, 'Ya know, the word Outlaw is the worst. Do you know what an Outlaw is? An Outlaw is somebody like Waylon Jennings or any artist who makes good music of their own. And they may not do it exactly the way everybody else does, and then they're called an Outlaw! Isn't that the dumbest term in the world?' Is Jason [Aldean] an Outlaw? Is Kenny Chesney an Outlaw? That's the same ole' crap. They say, 'Well, you had a lot to do with that Rock stuff, my man.' Cause that's all I was doing was hard Southern Rock."
Whatever you want to call it, two generations of Country artists who do it their own way will team up tonight for something extraordinary - just don't call them Outlaws. Church says opening the CMAs with a song titled "Are You Ready For The Country" sends a good message. "We don't want to forget where our roots are and where we came from, and I think this is a song that reminds everybody of that. It pays tribute to two guys who - one, you would not consider Country, even though he would be today, and that's Neil Young - and the other is Waylon, who is so central."
Church has been a CMA regular in recent years - performing, presenting, and mostly accepting awards, a trend that should continue tonight thanks to five nominations. But when is the last time Hank Jr. appeared on "Country's Biggest Night?"
"I don't know!" Hank told me. "They would ask, 'Will you come out and present?' Shit, no! I'm coming back the way I want to come back! I'm gonna play! I mean, let's face it, did Waylon ever go to one? Did he EVER go to ONE?! I just don't think so. But it's wonderful, because I've won a bunch of stuff there before. And this is like Hank Sr. and me, this is a great moment - this is one of the biggest years ever. Things have lined up."
See? Hank Jr. is still here, still confident and still has a lot to say. "Oh yeah. I am a Williams! It takes us about five minutes to write down an idea. We're lucky in that way."
Are you ready?