9 Hank Williams Jr. Songs That Rocked the Establishment
Not that any should have. Williams Jr. has spent the last four decades of his career playing by his own rules so, sure, he was going to upset the establishment. Beginning with the Family Tradition album, he found an original road to travel, but never lost connection to the music his father recorded in giving birth to popularized country music. Like the outlaw generation before him, he was bold and honest and unwilling to compromise; at times he was offensive, but he never let his focus stray from his true blue fan base.
Williams Jr. celebrated smoking, drinking, womanizing and boasting about it all, and never made cartoons out of rural America. At a time when so much of what came from Music City was looking for polish and commercial appeal, he snarled and stared forward behind dark sunglasses and a thick beard that hid scars from a near-fatal fall from Ajax Peak in 1975.
Williams Jr.'s catalog and this song list show his depth of knowledge about music of all sorts. He could croon or simply recite country lyrics while playing acoustic or electric guitars and fiddle. He was known for endless covers and hearty banter onstage, and occasionally for going too far.
There are several songs mentioned below that are beyond politically incorrect by 21st century standards. The degree to which this kept him out of the Hall of Fame for so long may never be known, but through the years, the Hall has made it clear that the warmer the personality, the better the chances.
"Family Tradition" (1979)
A list that doesn't feature "Family Tradition" among Williams Jr.'s Top 3 songs is just outsmarting itself. After nearly two decades of nondescript original country music, Junior roared back with songs from an album of the same name. He was still paying homage to his father as he'd done with varying degrees of intensity his entire life (and continues to do today), but this song made clear it was time for him to be an original. Did you know Charlie Daniels played fiddle on this song?
"A Country Boy Can Survive" (1982)
By modern standards, "Kaw-Liga" (released to radio two years earlier) would have been the brow-raiser from this era, but his stereotypes of Native Americans didn't slow his career down one bit. "A Country Boy Can Survive," a conservative celebration of rural American life and ideals, poured gas on a white-hot career to the point that in this calendar year Williams Jr. had nine albums on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart simultaneously (per a 2016 profile in the New Yorker). Keep in mind the song was released as Urban Cowboy-inspired music was doing everything it could to polish up country. The song almost feels like a response to that.
"All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" (1984)
When Monday Night Football picked up this song, it made Hank Jr. an American icon, but the song was influential for other, lesser-known reasons. Williams Jr. was a music video innovator who took the very first Music Video of the Year trophies at the ACM and CMA Awards with the star-studded clip for "All My Rowdy Friends ..." The song would go on to earn two Grammy nominations as well.
"Ain't Misbehavin'" (1986)
This one is a major pivot for Williams Jr., as it's a cover of a song first released when his father was six years old. You just don't tie Junior to prohibition-era jazz standards with much frequency, but here he proved he could croon. The No. 1 hit earned him another Grammy nod and respect from a different set of fans. Of course, he wasn't done being wild and rowdy.
"Born to Boogie" (1987)
Once called "country radio's hardest rocking hit ever" by journalist David Cantwell, "Born to Boogie" cooked at a time neo-traditional country music was making major moves (think Randy Travis). The song was pre-Garth and pre-Shania, but it's safe to say Hank cleared a few branches for both to shine in the '90s. So many '90s stars benefited from Bocephus. Do we even have Toby Keith without Williams Jr., and his best songs?
"If the South Woulda Won" (1988)
This is a tough song to listen to in 2020, as it celebrates the Confederacy in some uncomfortable ways. For example, the song yearns to get Florida on the right track by taking Miami back and promises to ban cars from China should Hank Jr. become president. It's Southern pride on overdrive, and it spelled the end of the singer's commercial radio success, aside from a few other mid-chart hits.
"There's a Tear In My Beer" (with Hank Williams, 1989)
You could make a long list of Williams Jr., songs where he name-checks his father in direct or indirect ways. Junior never forgot where he came from, but during this song and innovative music video he got to team up with his dad in a way not possible in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. An old demo of Williams Sr. singing "There's a Tear In My Beer" was discovered, so the younger singer and his band added their parts and then found a way to put them together in an award-winning music video. The song would give Williams Jr. his only Grammy.
"Keep the Change" (2011)
In 2011 Williams Jr. lost his job singing the Monday Night Football opening theme after comparing President Obama to Hitler in an off-the-cuff comment on Fox News. He bounced back with this song that was a shot at both television networks, the president and his supporters. “This country’s sure as hell been goin’ down the drain / We know what we need / We know who to blame,” he sings building into a chorus that refers to the United Socialist States of America.
"God and Guns" (2016)
Williams' 2016 cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song was controversial because of the timing, even if he said it wasn't so in his community. Mass shootings and school shootings were making the news seemingly every month, but Williams Jr. celebrated guns and gun rights in uncompromising ways. While not a single, the track created quite a stir.
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