(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
It’s easy to dismiss Hank Williams Jr. as a reactionary clown due to the conservative canards he long ago embraced, and a wide swath of America has done just that. At best, in their eyes, he’s the cartoonish buffoon who sings the Monday Night Football theme. At worst, they don’t think of him at all. Hank Who?
Which is a shame. From the landmark Hank Williams Jr. & Friends LP in 1975, when he embraced the outlaw ethos, through his last truly great album, Lone Wolf in 1990, he released a string of solid-to-stellar studio albums along with a truly stupendous live set, 1987’s Hank Live, and not one, not two, but three best-of collections. He was, as he brags in the live version of “My Name Is Bocephus,” the “platinum boy that does the rock ’n’ roll-country-blues.”
Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, released in November 1979, rates among his greatest works. Remember that the Iranian Revolution early in the year caused the price of oil to soar, which upended the economy as a whole. Auto sales plummeted, and inflation – which had been a scourge on working people for most of the decade – ratcheted past 10 percent. It was, for many, a bleak time.
As a result, as a whole, the album’s mostly downbeat. The title tune, for instance, tells of a life on the road, and the guilt that comes from a booze-fueled attempt to remedy loneliness. Like many a country song, in other words, it’s about cheating. The woozy rhythm accentuates the lyrics, which find the narrator begging for certain jukebox standards – including one by Hank Sr. – not to be played, lest he be reminded of his failing.
“Tired of Being Johnny B. Good,” the second track, reflects the era’s anger to a T. (In some ways, to share an observation from my wife, it’s a Tea Party anthem from a pre-Tea Party time. I’d only say that the lyrics are actually democratic – note the lower-case “d.”)
“Outlaw Women”…well, what can be said about this other than it’s a classic? Here’s a great version from 2004, with Hank joined by Gretchen Wilson.
Another high point: Hank’s bluesy take on the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.”
The album ends with Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings joining forces for “The Conversation,” in which they trade stories about Hank’s famous dad. Here’s the two of them from sometimes in the early ‘80s…
Say what you will about Hank’s politics (which are pretty much diametrically opposite of mine), but don’t let his outspoken stances get in the way of what is a damn good set of songs. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound is one of the touchstone albums in my life, in fact. It’s outlaw country at its best.
- Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
- Tired of Being Johnny B. Good
- Outlaw Women
- (I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs
- White Lightnin’
- Women I’ve Never Had
- O.D.’d in Denver
- Come and Go Blues
- Old Nashville Cowboy
- The Conversation