NASHVILLE, Tenn. • Fired up after laying down a new song in 45 minutes flat, Hank Williams Jr. emerges from the sound booth with a big, toothy grin wrapped around an unlit cigar.
"That’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time, cousin," Williams says before letting go with a bellowing laugh that spreads infectiously around the room.
And it’s true.
Williams has been having a rip-roaring good time since ESPN dropped his popular "Monday Night Football" theme song nine months ago, igniting a debate over freedom of speech that brought all of Williams’ rowdy friends to his defense — plus an unlikely coterie of defenders from all over the political spectrum.
The dustup helped reinvigorate Williams creatively and the result is "Old School, New Rules," his first new album in three years. The 12-song record features guest appearances from Merle Haggard and Brad Paisley and a healthy dose of Williams’ world view. Buoyed by the support he’s received, Williams thinks he may have penned a classic or two.
"I remember when I had big hits of mine — you know before you get to the studio," Williams said. "I mean you just know. Some guys told me when they go to the ballpark, they know they’re going to put one out of the park. Maybe they’ll feel good and they know who the pitcher is. And I have really fed off of the mood of the people."
Williams found widespread support after his tiff with ESPN. It started when Williams was asked a political question while promoting one of his father’s projects on "Fox and Friends." He used an analogy comparing cozy relations between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner with a hypothetical relationship between Adolf Hitler and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He was swiftly criticized for the comments and ESPN ended up dropping Williams’ altered hit "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" as its "MNF" theme song.
Williams claims victory in the showdown. Fans bought more than 250,000 T-shirts in support of his right to free speech, and Williams believes a drop in "MNF" ratings after the song was pulled has a little something to do with his supporters.
His reappearance in the national discussion also seemed to reinvigorate his place in the country music world. His father, the now deified Hank Williams, occupies an important place in music history and often overshadows the accomplishments of his descendants. But Williams Jr. also occupies an extremely important role and in many ways his fingerprints are far more identifiable on the modern country sound.
Johnny Cash used to hand a young Williams his cigarette before walking out on stage and he remembers first meeting Dolly Parton when they were both 19 ("Holy bananas," Williams still exclaims more than 40 years later). He would go on to help define country’s latter-day sound with hits like "Rowdy Friends," "My Name is Bocephus," "Old Habits" and "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound," and reaffirmed his place in popular culture every Monday night for the last 20 years when he shouted "Are you ready for some football ... !?!?"
Eric Church, whose rocking country sound owes much to Williams’ forays into Southern rock, described the singer as "a big ol’ oak tree out there who’s never going to sway."
"The great thing about Hank is still, in a day and time when there’s a lot of homogenization and copycats and stuff out there, Hank’s still a 100 percent American original," Church said. "Growing up, you couldn’t have a bonfire and you couldn’t drink beer where I came from unless there was Hank Jr. blastin’ out of the speakers on your truck ... That was my weekends. That was what we did. And I owe my career to him in that regard."
Paisley came to Williams’ defense during his rough patch with ESPN and helped bring him on stage during last year’s Country Music Association Awards, to great comedic effect. Williams gave him a necklace with his name on it that Paisley wore proudly while describing the 63-year-old singer’s importance.
"Hank was the man," Paisley said. "He basically said, ‘I’m going to show you what you can do with country music because I have every right,’ you know what I mean? He had the keys. He was given the keys as a child. He inherited the right to take the music wherever he wanted, and boy did he."
Williams puts his own stamp on the new album as well. Just the song titles alone give you a hint of his mood: "We Don’t Apologize for America," "Keep the Change," "Stock Market Blues" and "Taking Back the Country."
He takes on his detractors in "Cow Turd Blues," which turns President Harry S. Truman’s colorful metaphor into a vocal hook, and generally pulls no punches.
Just like you’d expect.
"People are kind of tired of some of the politically correct stuff," Williams said. "They’re over it. Nobody’s got a job. Nobody’s got any money. They’re starvin’. I know people with pawn shops and they said it’s sad. It’s sad to watch carpenters come in and pawn their tools. It would be like us pawning our guitars. (These songs) are coming from the heavens."
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