The Country Boy Did Survive
When it comes to Southern icons (in no specific order), you have Lynyrd Skynyrd, grits, college football, and Hank Williams Jr. Recently Cigars & Leisure had the opportunity to speak with the last, who at the age of 68 is still rocking, thrilling audiences, and enjoying his cigars.
Hank Williams Sr., of course, was one of country music’s earliest stars until he passed away in 1953. Not wanting the music to be lost, Audrey Williams put her son on stage to imitate his father’s style and sound at the tender age of 8. Over the years, he was embraced by legends such as Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and so many more. Bocephus, as he is known, broke away from being an imitator in the mid-’70s and launched himself into superstardom with his own country/Southern rock sound—known for his legendary anthems and gregarious partying.
Cigars & Leisure: It’s one thing to be a celebrity, but you long ago passed that and moved to icon status. What challenges do you face when you hit that level of fame?
Hank Williams Jr.: I am Hank no matter where I am and who I am with. I go to the store like everyone else, and I go out to eat like everyone else. Being an artist just allows me to come and go a little more freely than others, but I am still the same person that everyone thinks I am, which is why my fan base is very loyal.
Your story about growing up as a musical artist in the shadow of your father is well-documented. Now you have kids who are musicians and presumably in your shadow. What is your advice to them?
I’m very supportive of whatever my kids choose to do. I do not push them to be in the music business nor tell them what and who to sound like. Shelton [Hank Williams III] is very different than Holly, and Sam is very different than both of them.
I want them all to be successful no matter what they do. You have to remember: Mother put me out on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at 8 years old, and everyone wanted me to be just like Daddy. When I tried to do something different, people didn’t want to hear it because they all expected to hear Hank Williams songs. So when I was old enough and the time was right, I broke out to make my own sound and created my own image, which has done really well through the years.
You said there was never an option for you to do anything but go into music. If you could have done one job outside of music, regardless of pay, what would you have most enjoyed doing?
I would have been a hunting or fishing guide. I love the outdoors, and besides music, that is the only other thing I love to do!
What is your favorite cigar?
Well, for everyday smoking I really enjoy Arturo Fuente Chateau [Series] Naturals, but I also like anything from Davidoff. I have smoked cigars for years. Every scenario is different. Sometimes I want a Jim Beam and Diet Coke, and other times I want a nice Caymus. I guess it just depends on my mood, where I am, and what I am doing.
A little funny story is every time I see Willie Nelson or go see him on his bus, he always offers me a little smoke, and I say, “Well, Willie, you know that’s not really for me, but if you have a cigar I will puff one with you.” And he always laughs and says, “You know, I just happen to have a box of cigars on this bus,” and then he sends good ol’ Mickey Raphael to get them. We puff away and tell great stories about Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard.
What’s your favorite Southern city to visit?
Troy, Alabama! I have several hundred acres there, and I spend lots of time hunting in that area.
What tips do you have for travelers who want to get a true Southern experience?
Everyone’s view of a Southern experience is different. For me, getting out and metal detecting in people’s yards trying to find Civil War relics is a perfect day. But I guess it all depends on where you are from. Just like my song, “If the South Woulda Won,” the South is all a lifestyle, the same with a Southern experience. You can get good Southern food anywhere; it’s all about the cook!
As someone who has logged millions of travel miles, besides your instruments and phone, what does your essential travel gear consist of?
Fishing rods and firearms. You need all kinds, as hunting season changes very quickly.
You’ve toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd a number of times. Do you ever get sick of hearing “Free Bird”?
Never. I actually [did] about eight shows with the Skynyrd guys this summer. Ol’ Johnny [Van Zant], Gary [Rossington], and Rickey [Medlocke] … those are my friends. We go back a long ways!
Is it possible for you to go out in public and not have people wanting to start partying with you?
For sure! I go to dinner, the dentist, and many places, and people just let me be me and not bother me. If I go out where music is being performed, it is obvious people are going to ask me to get up and do a song, so I just don’t put myself in that position. I just have a good time regardless of where I am.
Describe what a perfect day for you would be today and how that differs from what you would have considered a perfect day in the 1980s.
Getting up and taking that little boy or girl out to get their first deer or turkey and just seeing that expression on their faces is priceless. Back in the ’80s everything was just happening so fast, and we were putting out records every year that I can’t even remember what a good or bad day was back then. I just know we were making music, making history, and had no time to look back.
In an interview from the early ’90s, members of Van Halen said you were their favorite guy to party with. What can you tell us about those days in what, to an outsider, seems like an odd mix?
Like I was saying, the ’80s were a different time. Things were happening so fast that you didn’t have time to look back or really know what all was happening. My manager, Merle Kilgore, got me teamed up with Van Halen, and we did some shows. Then in the late ’90s, Merle teamed me up with Kid Rock, so you can say that my music has been part of the “rock scene” for years.
If you were going to throw a tailgate party before a football game, what would it look like?
Well, have you heard “All My Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”? We would have a pig in the ground and beer on ice! I’m a big Alabama fan so, of course, that would primarily be the only team I would have a tailgate party for.
What’s the best concert or musical festival that you ever watched as a fan?
Are you serious? I don’t go to festivals or concerts. I have been doing this my whole life—the last thing I want to do is go to a concert.
Are there any young artists today that really impress you, or any you’d like to take under your wing?
I’m not a person to give advice. But I have had some great people open shows for me, like Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, Justin Moore, Jason Aldean—and then they have all gone on to win awards and make a great place for themselves in the business.
Country music used to be about great artists writing great songs, but now it is being criticized for having professional songwriters pump out generic party songs that go to whoever is hot. As someone who wrote some of the original country party anthems that people are now trying to mimic, what is your take on country music today?
I remember talking to Holly one day, and she said, “Well, Dad, I have to go to a writing appointment at 2 o’clock,” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” Nowadays, artists and writers set up these writing appointments, and I never have understood that. When I write a song, it’s something that comes to me wherever I am, and I just stop and write it down. I can’t tell you that I will have a great idea at 2 o’clock and that is when we will write a good song. So, I think things have changed in the way music is created. It works for some, but not for me at all.
You’ve played thousands of shows, and now you’re at a place in your career where you’ve written so many hits that you basically have an entire show of “must-plays.” What do you do leading up to a show that allows you to get up and perform at the level that makes the crowd walk away thinking they just saw something sacred, something just for them?
I never use a set list. I perform what I want, when I want, and for whomever I want. That is what the fans look forward to. You never know what I am going to do, and it always makes each show something special.
For more country music, check out our interview with Bobby Bare.