Album Review – Hank Williams Jr.’s “Rich White Honky Blues”

To true-blue country music fans, Hank Williams Jr. is a legend, a hero, and a Hall of Famer, no matter his dalliances with Southern Rock, or his often messy instances of dipping his toes into contentious waters. The catalog is just too good and too vast to cast off. But to many others, he’s a Grade A American blowhard doofus, the Ronald McDonald of Monday Night Football, and as homogenized as Borden milk, without an ounce of culture beyond Alabama honky hokum coursing through his blood of brown gravy and cheap whiskey. But they don’t know about the other side Hank Williams Jr.—the one that goes by the name Thunderhead Hawkins.

Make no mistake, Hank Jr. has done himself no favors over the past many years by becoming a caricature of himself in many ways. But those who know his career well, they know Hank is one of the most underrated musicians in country music, skilled on multiple instruments. They also know that he’s a veritable encyclopedia of the blues, building out from it to form the very foundation of his music just like his daddy did. Hank is a bluesman first. Then country music gets involved.

Is a Hank Jr. blues record going to appreciably elevate the standing of blues music in America? Probably not. Is it only good for a few listens and then maybe a return pass upon occasion as a novelty? Probably so. But it’s also just really damn cool that Hank Jr. took of his time to do this instead of releasing yet another album of semi-original late career stuff that country radio wouldn’t play, and his fans would quickly forget in favor of his classic stuff anyway. So have a little fun. Make a passion project. Screw if anybody likes it or not. You’ve earned it.

And even more cool is the fact that this is not your standard generic run through blues standards via 12-Bar BB King stuff. There’s some of the more straight ahead blues songs too, but Hank Jr. (or Thunderhead) chose a specific regional dialect to explore, namely North Mississippi Hill Country Blues like the stuff the Fat Possum record label starting making hip again in the late 90s—RL Burnside and that crowd, that went on to inspire The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach specifically, who produced this record for his own Easy Eye Sound label.

This isn’t a spit polished effort, and it isn’t meant to be. Get some good players in a room, a stool for ‘ol Hank, rig up some microphones, and have at it. Leave the studio banter on the front and back if it sounds cool, and stamp it on wax. That’s how the old guys did it, so no use dickering with the recipe now. Put the listener in the room by recording it live, and serve it up greasy. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to listen.

We’re already seeing ample pearl-clutching over this record from some of the usual suspects; how it’s cultural appropriation, and how the use of some terms like “whore” and “Gatling gun” are deprecated and inappropriate. Forget all that. This is a reenactment, and though some folks love to give credit to those classic rock Brits for being so misogynistic in their music, they learned it all from American blues greats. Hank Jr. is just working in the parlance of the medium, and good on Dan Auerbach for not sanitizing it.

He even throws down multiple F-bombs in the music, and though some are quick to point out that Jr. once chided Kid Rock for using the F-word in country, this ain’t country, and the unfortunate part of that situation is that Hank Jr. ever collaborated with Kid Rock in the first place, not that he’s compromising on his principles now. Ol’ Thunderhead Hawkins also refers to himself in the first person often on this record. Yes, this is a boisterous, bombastic album, not fit for the prudish and repressed moment we currently live in. But that’s the whole point of it. If you’re offended, the joke’s on you.

Hank lays it all out in the title track. He knows he will always be an outsider to the blues, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy it and perform it with authority. The truth of the matter is, Hank Williams Jr. has done more to spread the truth about the Black blues influence in country music than anyone else, including the activist class from media and Academia who love to rage on this point like that legacy was erased. By tributing Rufus ‘Tee-Tot’ Payne who taught his daddy how to play guitar at every opportunity, Hank Jr. has done his part. This album won’t rewrite music history, but it may impart some to audiences who may not otherwise being exposed to it.

Ultimately, this is a sort of half-cocked and silly side project both for Hank Jr. and Dan Auerbach to have a little fun with, almost like a Record Store Day release, but with a bit more heart behind it. It’s the blues album Hank’s been threatening to make for years, and despite it’s raunchy nature (or maybe because of it), it aptly and authentically imparts the joy of blues music.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.3/10)

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