It’s one of the most untold, intriguing, and perhaps controversial stories in country music history. We all know about Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Williams Jr., who was supposedly the only son of Hank Williams. We also know about Jett Williams who emerged years later as the daughter of Hank Williams via Bobbie Jett. But is there a third direct descendant of Hank Williams conceived in a semi-incestuous relationship with Hank’s first cousin Marie McNeil?
If you want to delve deeper into that story, you can check out the Country History X episode The Lost Bloodline of Hank Williams & The Search for Hank IV. But long story short, there is at least the possibility that Hank Williams had a second son named Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald. What we do know is that Butch was the son of Hank’s cousin Marie McNeil, so there is a blood relation.
Ricky Fitzgerald is the grandson of Lewis “Butch” Fitzgerald, and since Ricky’s parents were rarely in the picture, he was raised by Butch and his grandmother. Starting from the age of five, Ricky Fitzgerald showed a very close affinity with the songs of Hank Williams, and would sing them regularly as a young performer. Soon people started calling him Hank Williams IV.
Ricky Fitzgerald, a.k.a. Hank Williams IV is not to be confused with Coleman Williams, a.k.a. the frontman of “IV and The Strange Band.” Coleman Williams is the direct son of Hank Williams III, and is in the direct bloodline of the Hank Williams lineage. But since he was never bestowed the “Hank” name and wants to steer clear of any potential controversy, Coleman Williams does not use “Hank.”
If you’re still confused, check out the Hank Williams Family Tree of Performers.
Part of the legacy of Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III, Coleman Williams, and even Hank Jr.’s son Sam Williams has been respecting the family’s legacy, while also breaking with traditions by exploring rock, metal, and punk influences. However, since the beginning, Ricky Fitzgerald has always been about trying to preserve the original Hank Williams sound in the modern context, singing his (potentially) great grandfather’s songs, and trying to help keep them alive.
Now in his early twenties and past the puberty era where he had to navigate voice changes to find his footing again as an adult performer, Hank Williams IV has released his debut EP called Honky Tonk Habit, and this time full of original songs, but written and sung in the original Hank Williams style. Though there are scores of videos of Ricky Fitzgerald performing and sometimes in haunting accuracy to the Hank Williams and Hank Jr. sound, this is really the first time we get to hear Hank IV as his own performer.
Released by Lone Star Reserve Records, Honky Tonk Habit is exquisitely produced to sound just about as accurate as possible to Hank Williams in the modern context, though without any of the muddying and filtering effects that some new artists use to attempt to make their albums sound old and scratchy like dusty LPs. If nothing else, this album gets the instrumental arrangements perfect.
The first song “Honky Tonk Habit” shows how Ricky is right there with all the little Hank Williams inflections and vocal flutters that made Hank Sr. such a unique and emotive performer. At the same time though, Fitzgerald’s tone seems to fluctuate sometimes between the Hank Sr. and Hank Jr. sound in some respects.
Ricky perfected how to sing the songs of both Sr. and Jr. when he was growing up, and so it’s understandable that his voice would sit somewhere in between. It’s hard to accuse Fitzgerald of an affectation, especially if he’s a direct descendant of the familial bloodline. But he is still a young performer, and may sometimes lack the confidence to find a sure footing and sing out front all the time. Remember, this is still a debut EP.
But in subsequent songs like “Wrong Side of Town” and “Workin’ from Can ’til Cain’t,” Fitzgerald shows a building confidence, while the music and the writing style all fit smoothly into the Hank music lineage in sometimes haunting and uncanny moments. You could see the songs of this EP being ones that Hank wrote but never got around to recording.
Honky Tonk Habit concludes and is arguably crowned by the song “Hank Williams Ghost.” Co-written with Arthur K. Greene, it finds Hank Williams IV directly confronting the controversy about his bloodline, his choice to continue to use the Hank Williams name, and talking about how he’s found himself in the mission to keep the songs and the style of Hank Williams alive.
“They say I’m just a lost sheep, outside the family,” Fitzgerald sings, “…cause everywhere I sing they all come out to see, wanting me to prove my legacy… I can’t laugh, and I won’t cry, cause I know who I am, deep inside.”
A lot is still to be determined about the impact and trajectory of Ricky Fitzgerald, and just how the world will receive it, just as the questions linger about if he’s truly a son of Hank, or just a close relative (and no, nobody seems to be in a rush to take a DNA test to find out). But this EP establishes that Hank Williams IV is not just a lark. No matter where he fits in the Hank Williams legacy, Ricky Fitzgerald fits somewhere, and that helps ensure the future of that legacy for a new generation of listeners.
1 1/2 Guns Up
– – – – – – – – –
Purchase from Lone Star Reserve Records