Driving up U.S. 75 toward Durant, part of me was excited about seeing Hank Williams Jr. live. I knew that he was an arch-conservative, a bit of a racist, and probably too old to be any good, but there is always something exhilarating about seeing and hearing songs from your childhood performed live.
There was also a naive part of me that thought he would just play the good old classics and stay away from his entirely terrible work from the last 15 or 20 years. Such hopes, however, proved more fantasy than reality.
Hank Williams Jr. was probably part of a lot of our childhoods. Even if you don't know much of Williams' other discography, "Are You Ready for Some Football?" is instantly recognizable by anyone who spent their Monday nights growing up watching the Cowboys play. The show opened with "All My Rowdy Friends," which was a very effective way to get the crowd going. And by going, I mean everyone, including the 60-year-old women in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots, was the definition of rowdy. (And by rowdy, I mean "already drunk and starting to sweat.")
Everyone wants to be asked if they want to drink and party while they're holding cans of overpriced cans of casino beer, especially the crowd in Durant. Two guys in the upper deck saluted Hank with their Miller Lite cans throughout the entire show, which took real dedication. One bright young star in Sanuk slip-ons and a pink button-down wrapped himself in a Bocephus-branded Confederate flag despite the fact that it was too damn hot in that venue to be wrapped in anything made of nylon, much less the visual representation of Southern racism.
The next song, titled "Keep the Change," was a pointed middle-finger at President Obama and the "United Socialist States of America." In case you were wondering, Bocephus and everyone in that crowd at the Choctaw Events Center would like for the rest of America to know that they'll be keeping their guns, their V8 engines, and their "Christian names," and us freedom-hating liberals can keep the "change."
The middle of the two-hour set included a lot of muddy covers, like Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Three Steps," and the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See." "Kaw-Liga" was played in all its original racist glory, with a few even more cartoonish attempts at a war cry thrown in for good measure. The set really got troublesome, though, when Williams told a story of meeting a black man at his father's house.
"You know I love the black man, and he came to me and said, 'Yo' daddy got that song about jambalaya and the crawfish pie-a,'" Williams rambled in a god-awful, patronizing caricature of an African American man. "'Remember, country music is just white people singing the blues. You go get you a dobro and a lot of good things will happen for you, Little Bocephus.'" It wasn't entirely clear if he was a little drunk by this point, but it wouldn't haven't been surprising.
Not long after, and in solidarity with the rest of the Copenhagen-dipping crowd, Bocephus spat across the stage before starting "If the South Woulda Won." Everyone cheered at both his epic wad of chaw and at the idea that the world would have been a much better place if the Confederacy was still around. Scores of rebel flags, available for $20 at the merch table, waved in the air for much of the night, but there was no stronger showing than during this song.
If that wasn't enough, there was the homophobia too. The show didn't really start to go down that road until it was about two-thirds over, when Williams played "Dinosaur." "You're singin' a song about makin' love to your drummer/Well gay guitar-pickers don't turn me on," he sang at one point, that many people in the audience knew word for word. Even these most loyal fans were surprised to hear him holler out "Cocksuckers!" between the first two verses, but they cheered nonetheless.
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The rabble-rousing and hate-filled sloganeering was made all the sadder in light of the show's more sensitive, if fleeting, glimpses. It is in covers of "Lovesick Blues" and "There's a Tear in My Beer," that you hear only a trace of Hank Williams Sr.'s legendary voice. Bocephus has always been a speak-singer, but especially so in his old age. Still, there were small hints of his daddy's soulful warbling that could make anyone realize that Hank Williams Jr. may not have had that iconic voice, but he definitely inherited some talent.
If that talent has ever truly struck a chord with me, it's in a song that my dad used to play, written in the aftermath of Williams Jr.'s battle with drugs and alcohol. When the opening notes of "The Blues Man" began to play, even I thrust my can of beer into the air with a "Hell yeah!" for emphasis. Disappointingly, his voice couldn't hold up to the higher notes of one of his best tracks, meaning that it was much more speaking to music than singing.
The few bright spots at this show, though, were reminders of the golden age of country music. When it was about good songwriting, not just a catchy jumble of Southern stereotypes like jacked-up trucks and chewing tobacco. If Williams paid as much attention to picking his guitar and singing as he does President Obama and the gays, he might well put on one a hell of a show.
Of course, the worst part about it all was that I only had low-point Okie beer to get me through the two-hour set. Talk about a grind.