Half a century into his career, Hank Williams Jr. still can’t make up his mind. On the title track of his new album, It’s About Time, billed as his 37th, he complains he has “had enough of this weird pop-country sound.” But that doesn’t stop him from recruiting contemporary country talents and tricks for help.
The opener’s a booming duet with Eric Church. And in the closing update of Williams’ own “Born to Boogie,” Brad Paisley cranks guitar while Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore pass the mic with Bocephus rap stylings, establishing the hit 1987 original as a kind of bro-country blueprint. More incongruously, there’s the goofy “Dress Like an Icon,” which name-drops not just Robert Johnson, but also Louis Vuitton and Nicki Minaj. Yet a few songs later, in the Allmans-style weeper “Just Call Me Hank,” the Nash Icon recording artist tells us, “Don’t call me an icon.”
Williams is more consistent when it comes to two of his great loves: God and songs associated with Waylon Jennings. Williams covers both Neil Young‘s “Are You Ready for the Country,” which Jennings made his own in 1977, and Mel Tillis‘ wickedly funny breakup curse “Mental Revenge,” a hit for Jennings a decade earlier. And three songs have “God” in their titles. “God Fearin’ Man” and “God and Guns” are the chest-beating, blue-collar, backlash populism you’d expect, the latter suggesting the government is plotting to take away that “peacemaker” in your dresser. “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus (God’s Got It)” is way more interesting — a resurrection of a ’70s blues spiritual by Louisiana-via-Mississippi preacher Reverend Charlie Jackson that takes off from a fishing-allegory sermon and then hums through the Delta for six minutes.
In fact, much of It’s About Time is dense, cooking Southern rock. It can be frivolous (the bleacher-stomp shout-alongs “Club U.S.A.” and “The Party’s On”) but has no problem nailing a groove. There are even hints of Dixieland jazz in the rhythm, as on the “All My Rowdy Friends” update “Those Days Are Gone.” Wherever you stand on Williams’ politics and contradictions, when he claims he was born to boogie, he’s still not kidding.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.