Before fully descending into hamfisted football jock territory, country’s prodigal son made one last classic in 1979
The title track of Hank Williams, Jr.’s 1979 album Family Tradition deserves credit—or blame—for the Confederate flag-waving, Monday Night Football shilling, Southern rocking persona that serves as a reminder of less politically-correct times for some and as an uncouth redneck caricature for others.
Yet, just like any artist with a decades-long career, Williams can’t just be put into a box—even if he manufactured the cardboard, purposefully glued himself inside and addressed it to a musical zip code far from his daddy’s old stomping grounds near Montgomery. Al.
Surprisingly, Family Tradition serves as a good introduction to the other musical sides of ole Bocephus, a dynamic vocalist capable of more than rowdy tunes about whiskey drinking and hell-raising. Plus, it comes at a key moment during Williams’ transition from a glorified Hank Sr. tribute act to the bad boy that gained traction in the ‘80s and still defines the singer’s public image.
Williams wasn’t interested yet in providing non-stop soundtracks for your next kegger, considering the opening track is a cover of the Bee-Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” It’s an orchestral country belter, more akin to a Glen Campbell single than the Brothers Gibbs’ original. It proves that Williams, of all people, was as up to the task of hat-tipping the Bee-Gees as Kenny Rogers and other peers better known for their crossover pop acumen.
Like Garth Brooks, another unfair target of country traditionalists’ ire, Williams excelled when toning down rock-inspired showmanship in favor of singing a lower-tempo tear-jerker. “The Dance” and “Unanswered Prayers” rank among Brooks’ best songs, while Williams’ finest deep cuts include the equally gorgeous “Cherokee,” from 1977’s One Night Stands. On Family Tradition, Williams shines as a stylist through such sentimental takes as “Paying on Time” and “Always Loving You.”
Another strong showing of Williams’ softer side, and a surprise for those completely put-off by his politics, comes when the introspective “We Can Work It All Out” goes from a song about a lover’s quarrel to an impassioned plea for racial and socio-political equality. Although the lyrics probably haven’t reflected Williams’ stances in 40 years, it’s a great country music addendum to the Biblical Golden Rule.
For those more interested in hearing Rockin’ Randall Hank, he’s well represented on this album, as well. Beyond a title track that needs no introduction, Williams starts building a mythical stage persona separate from his father’s with the lusty “Old Flame, New Fire,” a cover of The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” that resembles The Band’s “Cripple Creek” and a revision of Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” that predicted the future arrival of Spotify playlists for beer-drinking afternoons.
Over time, Williams transitioned from being known as the musical offspring of his famous father to a longstanding persona that paints him as Kid Rock’s pretend dad. Family Tradition captures a key time in this transformation while revealing a poorly-kept secret: there’s always been a sensitive man and a well-rounded artist hiding behind those ever-present sunglasses.
VIDEO: Hank Williams Jr. – To Love Somebody