“If you don’t like Hank Williams, you can kiss my ass.”
With those words — actually from a song written by Kris Kristofferson, one of Bocephus’ few still-living rowdy friends — Hank Williams Jr. brought an epic concert to a close Saturday night at the Nugget Events Center, the new 8,500-seat amphitheater in downtown Sparks.
It was obvious that being Hank Jr. is a pretty good gig these days, and he’s damn glad to still be doing it. Seventy years old and 62 years into this performing business (he was 8 when his mother first sent him onto a stage to sing his daddy’s songs in front of an audience), he still has all of the onstage charisma, musical chops and personality to take any group of fans down a Lost Highway of country-rock entertainment they’re just not going to get anywhere else these days.
And boy, is he ever unafraid to speak his mind.
He complained about the sound of his acoustic guitar, scolded kneeling NFL players, dropped an f-bomb or two when his guitar rig quit working early in the set and, at one point, stopped his band and re-counted “one, two, three, four” before telling them not to screw up his “damn song.”
And he never stopped smiling the entire time. Not from the moment he walked onstage in black pants, a black shirt and a black ball cap with the word “ICON” written on it — seemingly the most relaxed man in the place, as if he were welcoming 8,500 of his closest rowdy friends into his living room for a night of family entertainment.
Williams wore a lot of hats this evening, both literally and figuratively, and his still-feverish fan base ate up every bit of it.
He switched headgear often, going from his ball cap to a big cowboy hat and then an authentic 1951 Hank Williams Stetson (try to find one of those on the rack) and back to the ball cap. And, in what has long since become a tradition at his shows, he switched instruments almost as often as he switched hats.
The first half of the show was driven by Hank’s electric guitar. He pulled out a fiddle for “Kaw-Liga” (one of four Hank Sr. songs on the set list), got behind the piano for some boogie-woogie takes on “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and then, in probably the highlight of the evening, sat solo at center stage with an acoustic guitar for a medley of songs made famous by him, his father, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings — only to pull out an electric guitar again to cover riffs made famous by Ted Nugent and Joe Perry.
That’s a whole lot of musical styles and generations in one sentence. But for Williams, that’s just another night on the road.
The fact that Hank Jr. (in his words) plays “where he wants, when he wants and for who he wants” says a whole lot about the level of joy and satisfaction he gets from his job these days, which is a far cry from the hellish situation he found himself in 50 years ago.
Nicknamed “Bocephus” by his father in honor of a ventriloquist dummy from the Grand Ole Opry, Hank was shoved onstage as an 8-year-old boy by his mother, Audrey, keeping the family coffers full by singing his daddy’s songs (backed by the original Drifting Cowboys band) to a nation of Hank Sr. fans eager to keep the music alive by any means necessary. That went on for most of the next decade; in interviews since, he’s noted that job was “a lot of fun for a boy, but hell for a man.”
By the time Hank Jr. started working his own songs into the set, the reaction was often several hundred people leaving the theater at the same time. They didn’t want to hear his songs. They were there to hear Hank Sr.
So, you couldn’t blame him if at some point he said to hell with those songs and just kept forging his own path — which, thanks to a string of platinum albums and singles in the 1970s and 1980s that rivals just about anything in the history of the genre, would be completely understandable.
But he didn’t. In time he again embraced those songs (often re-inventing them in a southern rock style) and positively celebrates their legacy right along with his own.
And besides, it’s his songs that people come to hear these days. In strong voice throughout, he gave his fans plenty of them Saturday, everything from “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” to “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” and “Family Tradition” to “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” — noting with a bit of sadness that Cash, Jennings and most of his rowdy friends have long since departed.
Fortunately for Hank Jr., he’s always got plenty of rowdy friends waiting to meet him on the road. This capacity crowd was definitely on the rowdy side, with most people standing on their feet, singing along and dancing for a majority of the show. Beer sales, we must note, quite possibly set a record that may stand for a while at this sparkling new venue.
The fans actually got their money’s worth for this one before Williams even took the stage. The opening act, Hannah Dasher, aptly described herself as a “rock and roll Dolly Parton” and quickly went about proving herself correct. Her high-energy down-home country songs (including one called “I’m Going To Kick Your Redneck Ass”) struck a chord with a crowd that was well-oiled and ready for some redneck ass kicking even before she took the stage. (It was a busy afternoon for the bars on Victorian Avenue.)
Dasher even looked like a rock-and-roll Dolly Parton (you can fill in the blanks), albeit with dark hair, and paid homage to her by covering “Nine To Five,” a slightly rocked-up version that compared quite well to the original.
After her set, she walked into the crowd, mingled with the fans and posed for pictures with anybody who asked. She did a nice job keeping the crowd entertained while waiting for Hank Jr. to complete his meet-and-greet and finally get on the stage.
And as Hank Jr. himself would be the first to say, it’s not easy being on stage when the people are there to see a man named Hank Williams.
— Mike Wolcott
- Songs performed by Hank Williams Jr. at the Nugget Events Center on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019:
- Are You Ready for the Country
- OD’d in Denver
- Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
- Move It On Over
- The Conversation
- Just Call Me Hank
- Take A Knee, Take A Hike
- All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight
- I Really Like Girls
- Guitar-riff medley (Gimme Three Steps, La Grange)
- Your Cheatin’ Heart
- Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
- Outlaw Women
- There’s A Tear In My Beer
- All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)
- Theme from “The Dukes of Hazzard” (Good Ol’ Boys)
- I Walk The Line
- A Country Boy Can Survive
- Born To Boogie
- Guitar-riff medley (Walk This Way, Cat Scratch Fever)
- Family Tradition