Forty years ago, the life and career of Hank Williams Jr. was at a crossroads. A chart fixture for over a decade, the country singer had grown weary of recording by the typical Nashville rules. His style began to change on 1975’s Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, a musically adventurous fusion of country, blues and Southern rock.
“It was a big turning point in my career,” he tells Rolling Stone Country of the LP. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had the strong career I have had without that album, who knows.”
Williams had charted 32 singles before releasing Friends — including the chart-topping “All for the Love of Sunshine” and “Eleven Roses.” While standing by the classic sounds of those older tunes, he was still ready for a big change, namely in doing things his own way. “When Mother put me out on stage at eight years old, everyone wanted me to be just like Daddy. So I would go out there and sing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’ and ‘Hey, Good Lookin’,’ and the people would go crazy,” he recalls. “As I got older and started to realize that I needed to create my own sound and identity, it took people back. They really didn’t want me to do anything but Hank Williams [Sr.] music. Let’s not forget now, I was making a good living for the family doing Daddy’s stuff. I was keeping a lot of people employed to feed their families.”
“I got to meet a lot of great influences back then also,” Williams continues. “People like Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, Earl Scruggs, Little Richard and many more were over at Mother’s house and while they were there, I had them teach me lots of great things musically.”
Hearing the eclectic sounds from all of those mentors opened his eyes from an artistic standpoint. Instead of solely channeling his famous father, Williams began to develop his own voice through the hodgepodge of influences.
“It really made me understand and hear so much more musically from the piano, from the guitar, from the banjo.. Then came the Friends album, where some people were saying that I was nuts and that my career was finished. Instead, it went the other direction! The most satisfying thing was knowing that I could do it and that the fans were liking it — maybe not the industry folks, but the fans were connecting with the sounds and the songs.”
“When I fell, there were only two people I saw when I woke up in the hospital bed, and that was Johnny and June.”
The success of Hank Williams Jr. and Friends is even more poignant considering another hurdle Williams faced ahead of its December 1975 release. As he geared up to promote the record, the musician found himself with another fight on his hands — for his life. On August 8th, 1975, he fell close to 500 feet while climbing Ajax Mountain in Montana. Suffering multiple skull and facial fractures, he faced a long road to recovery — and traveled it as well as he could have, with a little help from his friends.
“Many people don’t realize that June Carter Cash was my godmother. She and mother were very tight. When I fell, there were only two people I saw when I woke up in the hospital bed, and that was Johnny and June,” Williams recalls. “June put a cross on me and told me it was all going to be OK. I never knew if I would sing again or not, talk again or not, let alone think about what I was going to look like. It was a scary time, but having people like Waylon [Jennings], Johnny and June around really helped me.”
After the accident, Williams’ momentum didn’t slow down for long. His 1979 release Family Tradition proved that his new musical direction wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan success. That similarly rebellious album started a long run of million-selling records that followed.
Today — several gold and platinum LPs, CMA and ACM trophies and sold-out concerts later — “Bocephus” is still a musical force to be reckoned with. The country legend recently signed a contract with Nash Icon Records and is ready to surprise fans once again.
“We have made an album that is pure magic,” Williams says of his next project. “The songs — some I wrote and others I got from great songwriters — are typical Hank Jr. songs and I think will connect with anyone who hears them.
“Remember this one: ‘Dress Like an Icon,'” he teases. “That’s all I’m gonna tell you!”