The 49th CMA Awards kicked off with a flash of rowdiness, as Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church teamed up to perform "Are You Ready for the Country," the first single off Williams' upcoming album It's About Time.
With Church in a burgundy leather jacket and Bocephus at his mugging best (and the Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston sporting a Waylon Jennings T-shirt and adding tough guitar), the performance was a welcome dose of old school swagger and twang for a show that last year opened with Meghan Trainor and Miranda Lambert singing Trainor's pop smash "All About That Bass." Williams is no stranger to the CMAs — in 1987 and '88, he was named back-to-back Entertainer of the Year, and made a memorable appearance at the 2011 awards, popping up during Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood's opening monologue.
But Williams says his live performance tonight with Church is especially meaningful, as he views "Are You Ready for the Country," written by Neil Young but made famous in country music by Waylon Jennings, as a way to honor his late friend Jennings, who died in 2002.
"That's the part that means anything to me, that it's a Waylon song," Williams tells Rolling Stone Country, recalling how he used to warm up crowds for the seminal country outlaw as a young man. "Waylon was opening the show with 'Are You Ready for the Country' and then he and I closed the show with 'Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.' Yeah, so you think I don't have special memories?"
The studio version of Williams' duet with Church of "Are You Ready for the Country" is now available on iTunes, the initial taste of It's About Time. The album also includes a new version of "Born to Boogie," with Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore, two modern-day stars of whom Williams — who admits to not being in touch with the contemporary Nashville scene — has become keenly aware.
"Believe me, Rockin' Randall ain't runnin' around listening to country radio," he says. "Not hardly."