‘I started searching for my own identity when I was about 20. Until then I didn’t give a damn’
When I sing them old songs of Daddy’s,/Seems like ev’ry one comes true./Lord, please help me, do I have to be/The living proof? (From Hank Williams Jr.’s song, Living Proof.)
During most of his young life the unhappy answer for the only son of Country Music’s greatest star was yes. Hank Jr. was 3 when his father died from liquor and speed at age 29. The boy began touring in 1957, conjuring up his father’s spirit on stage with imitations of his C & W classics like Your Cheatin’ Heart and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. It was a life bereft of either professional or personal satisfaction. By the early ’70s, young Hank was anesthetizing himself with the familiar alcohol and painkillers. In 1975, he tried to OD on Darvon. (He was discovered unconscious by his manager, who rushed him to a hospital.) Then, six months later, a horrifying accident on a climbing trip very nearly ended Williams’ mission on earth as Daddy’s musical legacy.
While scaling Ajax Peak in Montana, the snow under Williams’ feet gave way, and he fell crashing face first into a boulder 500 feet below. His face was split open down the middle, hairline to chin as if struck with an axe. It took plastic surgeons two years to reconstruct the shattered bones and torn flesh; and two years beyond that for Hank to rebuild his personal life and musical career. The living proof (also the title of a new autobiography) is that Hank’s Family Tradition LP and single this summer have been his biggest hits since the accident. Moreover his just-released LP, Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, may well be the finest outlaw-style progressive Country music he has recorded yet. It is a sound distinctly different from the lonesome wail of his father. Meanwhile, junior’s thriving club dates now earn him $7,500 a night, triple his fee of two years ago.
For Hank, 30, breaking away was both slow and painful. When he was 8, his widowed mother, Audrey, pushed him into the spotlight to sing his father’s songs—”with Daddy’s band. It was like a reincarnation,” Hank remembers. As a teenager he performed as many as 200 nights a year, toured with Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and drove the ’52 Cadillac his father owned. Hank Jr. dubbed his own voice over his father’s on a “duet” LP and recorded the sound track for Hank Sr.’s 1965 film biography, Your Cheatin’ Heart. Looking back on these years of recreating his father’s music, Hank now says “It was fun. I got thousands of dollars and standing ovations.” Moreover, he had been willed 60 percent of Hank Sr.’s royalties, worth more than $250,000 a year.
But offstage young Hank’s pained life began to mirror his father’s. He married at 17 to spite his mother, but that broke up. So did a second marriage after his wife Gwen bore him a son, Hank III. Drinking night and day, Williams started walking out on gigs, just as his father had.
Lapsing deeper into depression, he began seeing a Nashville psychiatrist and moved to Cullman, Ala., 140 miles south of Montgomery, to escape his past. His rousing mid-1975 LP Hank Williams Jr. and Friends was a promising break away from his father’s idiom, but a few weeks later he left for the mountains of Montana.
At his side as he recovered from his injuries was his third wife, Becky, whom he met a week before the accident and married a year later. “I used to use women like bathrooms,” recalls Hank, a favorite of “snuff queens”—as country music groupies are called. “But all Becky and I did our first six dates was hug,” he marvels. Becky, a native of Mer Rouge, La., was just getting over a sacked romance with Baltimore Colts quarterback Bert Jones. But “twenty-four hours after admitting we loved each other, I became a monster on a mountainside with most of my face gone.”
Today Hank and Becky share the 20-acre Cullman spread with their own 8-month-old Hilary (Hank III, 5, lives with his mother in Nashville.) Hank is happily domesticated to the point of cooking—his piece de résistance is cubed venison soaked in beer and barbecued all night on a window screen. He loves to hunt, flying his own Bonanza A-36 to Montana; in his re-finished basement a stuffed mountain lion, grizzly and rattlesnake attest to his prowess.
Hank Jr. now seems reconciled to his past. In every show, he is sure to sing at least two of his father’s songs, Jambalaya and Your Cheatin’ Heart. “I couldn’t be the son of a legend like Daddy and turn my back on him—nor do I want to.” So how does he face down the honky-tonk hecklers? “If you want to hear Hank Williams Sr.,” he tells them unsentimentally, “go buy his albums.”