Hank Williams Jr.
Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie
Saturday, September 5, 2015
Hank Williams, Jr. played at Verizon Theatre on Saturday night, but aside from the smart-phone users in the audience and the unexceptional lights show, the whole episode was straight out of a decades-old memory. Some anachronisms are expected, and even welcome from legendary figures creeping up on 70 — they’re selling pleasures from a simpler time. But this was different. Unlike the John Mellencamps of the world, Williams' musical style holds up just fine, fundamental as it is to the continuing dynasty of bro-country on the charts; it’s his politics that have fossilized, and try as you might, they can’t be avoided.
Just ask ESPN, who broke ties with the star in 2011, giving him the boot from a long-held spot opening for Monday Night Football after he seemingly compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler (who hasn’t, amirite?) on a Fox and Friends appearance that was supposed to promote an album. But maybe we shouldn’t trust those ass-covering execs, at least not more than a full house of Dallasites cheering on their brave Bocephus. When you get right down to it, why does a country-rock star's take on the state of our union matter? If he can think Obama’s a Muslim and still write songs worth their salt, maybe that's just more power to him.
As a native Texan with ancestral roots in the Confederacy, I was perfectly willing to ignore the audience members draped in the symbol of the pro-slavery South, and to excuse an “Obama sucks!” call from the rows nearby. After all, the old-school masculinity Williams embodies and the patriotic displays of him and his fans, however misguided, can be endearing in the right light. But it’s much harder to overcome the opposing worldview of an artist when the “politics behind the person” have taken over the entire persona; they weren’t so much behind him as shamelessly paraded out in front, stripped of any and all nuance. That's just the way he likes it.
Artistic self-expression can redeem the otherwise unattractive or even morally repugnant, but it didn’t help that the arena-friendly highlights of Junior’s discography are basically rap braggadocio for people who hate (and I mean hate) rap. His most romantic love songs, such as they are in a concert like this, still tend to dehumanize him, generally sung from the perspective of an unrepentant sleaze with a fetish for “Outlaw Women.” Even if you like your country best upbeat, as I do, you might have found yourself wishing for a little more sad-sack crooning to break up the macho posturing —vulnerability hasn’t hurt rappers either, all things considered.
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When he’s not singing about being a lecherous “son of a gun,” it's all about America. As if Donald Trump isn’t enough of a self-parody, Bocephus has his own platform, best evidenced by a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover he delivered with gusto late in the set: “God and guns keep us strong/That’s what this country was founded on.” There’s nothing SNL can do to make that more ridiculous. Of a similar flavor, his response to the ESPN kerfuffle, “Keep the Change” (get it?), drew bigger cheers than even the classics that started things off; it’s the moment when I started to feel uncomfortable acknowledging the catchy rhythms pulsing beneath me. The chorus: “This country's sure as hell been goin' down the drain/We know what we need/We know who to blame/United Socialist States of America/How do you like that name?”
Normally, I wouldn’t give a damn — give me art from my artists and entertainment from my entertainers, and I’ll take good songs from “problematic” people over bad ones from saints, as a general rule. But Hank Williams, Jr. has little patience for a guy like me who just wants to hear good tunes; by the end of the night, he was telling anyone who didn’t support a long and assorted list of arbitrary cultural signifiers, bands and people mostly, to get the hell out. Kings of Leon was in the mix, which is all anyone needs to know.
It wasn’t racism or xenophobia that weighed on me as the evening wore on, though touchier folks would’ve found plenty of things to object to, if the Confederate flag wasn't enough already. But generally, Williams' lack of social consciousness is almost harmless. For one thing, he clearly doesn’t know his cover of “I Really Like Girls” (George Thoroughgood & the Destroyers) doth protest too much; he also avoided “If the South Woulda Won,” which maybe even he has realized is beyond the pale.
Instead, it was the feeling of contempt for rational discourse that brought me down. This is how well-meaning progressives imagine their counterparts across the aisle, because people like Hank Williams, Jr. are not only around but actively influencing voters. He helps create a culture. Believe it or not, there is a reasonable case for conservatism, for traditionalism, for a libertarian approach to government, even for being pro-gun, but Bocephus and his rowdy friends shook my faith in debate. Worse still, they tainted a formidable musical legacy, though hopefully not beyond recovery.