Hank Williams, Jr. has been drawing lines in the sand for a long time. His more recent history of political cable TV ad hominem has gained him the wrong kind of visibility, but the fact is Bocephus (his lifelong nickname) has been going down swinging for the last 25 years. His latest effort, It’s About Time, is just one more cantankerous tirade from a man standing bewildered in a rapidly shifting America.
The moment Bocephus took a turn for the political is a matter of debate, but where he began is not. He is the son of a legend. His country music pedigree is unassailable. He may have gotten unwarranted mileage out of that surname, but he has mostly made good on it. He’s amassed 56 studio albums since he began recording at the age of 15 in 1964. In the ’70s, Williams began finding his own voice and put out solid country records. They were his own, a melding of rock and roll style and country soul. Williams was continuing a long country tradition of channeling regret and pathos into musical narrative.
Then, in the late ’80s, Bocephus took a defiant turn. Under the auspices of Southern Pride, he began to delve into thoughts that, today, sound downright loony. On 1988’s Wild Streak, he sings, “If the South woulda won, we’d a-had it made.” This kind of blind revisionism teed him up perfectly for his 1990 album America (The Way I See It), a work of pure propaganda wrapped in a steal guitar. By 2011, his invocation of Hitler to describe our president falls well within the reasonable bounds of that 20 year trajectory. Only now the landscape has shifted dramatically. We don’t casually glorify all our Confederate generals. Football is no longer just fun times with all our rowdy friends, but a serious conversation about women-beating and concussions.
It seems silly, but I half hoped It’s About Time might at least dabble in the smallest bit of reflection and, dare I hope, regret. Bocephus has enjoyed decades of tolerance for his Southern revisionism. Hell, we all have in ways direct and indirect. But his misstep in 2011 on a Fox News appearance got his theme song yanked from Monday Night Football, where it had been a staple since 1989. And Williams is just now at retirement age, possibly looking back on a two-toned career and thinking things through.
Predictably, It’s About Time is not about to entertain any mea culpas. It is a brash, exciting, entertaining, saddening punch in the jaw for anyone looking for a fight. The album kicks off with a Neil Young tune “Are You Ready for the Country.” It is the stand-out track, a sharp, soulful barb that never wanes. Bocephus’ voice is as strong as ever, bolstered by a gospel choir. That first statement is no hyperbole; Williams sounds nowhere near his 66 years of age. The production on It’s About Time is pristine, highlighting the musicianship without overdoing the polish. The gospel choir, which he also utilizes on “Dress Like an Icon” and “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus” is Williams’ best personnel decision by far. The album is rich with gospel blues and galloping with amped up vitality.
Where things go off the rails is in Williams’ ridiculous screeds. “Club America” is American Exceptionalism run amok. “Getting born here’s like winning the lottery,” he sings to the minority of Americans for which life feels like a lottery windfall. A song presumably titled out of humble reverence, “God Fearin’ Man,” indulges some of Williams’ worst hubris. And “God and Guns” celebrates a bellicose piety I cannot personally articulate. I only wonder what kind of god can be confiscated with the same ease as a firearm: a dumb idol of wood and steel.
What makes It’s About Time especially sad is where it tramples on what I think is the heart of country music, something that can only be found swept into the crannies and cracks of American music. Bocephus here bears an unmistakable likeness to a couple of this year’s presidential candidates. He is chasing his own tail in the stubborn insistence on an outmoded America that exists only on posters.
The methodology is actually correct. We really can make America great again by recalling and repracticing our best historical selves. America really has been great before. It was great when men and women were fighting abroad and spending their energies on scrap drives during WWII. It was great at multiple points in history when it welcomed immigrants from around the globe and they in turn built and nurtured the communities that gave us little Italys and little Armenias and Chinatowns and the dusty old German-Catholic Texas outposts that make up this nation’s true character. It was great when it fought a brutal, internal war for its own soul in the 1960s and is great when it keeps fighting and bleeding and reconciling its way through that knotty mess of racial strife.
Basically, America has been great at all the moments it has been the poorest, the problems the most troubling, the sorrow the realest and the sacrifice and charity the greatest. Country music used to be linked to regret, sorrow, longing, to the point where it was widely mocked for being a genre of lament. Its strength was in its foolishness. With It’s About Time, Hank Williams, Jr. has all the saber-rattling with none of the fight, all the vocal power of a gospel choir with none of the good news. Maybe Bocephus will rediscover his country soul before he leaves us, but for now he stands on his side of the line, unconcerned whether anyone will still join him there.