After 70 million records and 100 charting singles, does Hank Jr. have anything left to prove? Nope, but it is after all, a family tradition - so here he is, at age 66, with his first release on a new label exclusive to Hall of Famer types (Reba, Martina McBride), looking to strike gold one more time. The Bocephus blueprint hasn't changed much since the late '80s. We've come to expect guest stars, loads of songwriters and a dip into the great American music catalog. You can also depend that there will be a bunch of songs insisting his life's just like yours, and others proving it's not. Most of us never went barhopping with Waylon and Johnny Cash.
What is new is volume. Whereas Hank used to be satisfied with a couple of guitars to carry the tune, there's now forays into a wall of sound, featuring cacophonous horns, organ and whatever else is lying around. The lead single, Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country," with Eric Church, sure sounds like it has an urgent message. But listen to it 10 times and defy yourself to describe what it is.
A similar blandness infiltrates the first half of this record, whether Williams is saying America's great ("Club USA") or losing firearms would be bad ("God and Guns"). The political material with the amped-up instrumentation should give this material more life - but without any wry indictment of his opponents or winning turns of phrase, it's flat. Many will also be disappointed that the outlaw sense of humor, which fans love (and showed up in force on 2003's "I'm One of You") didn't much come to play this time.
This is really a tale of two records, though, with the second much, much better. Junior finally reaches deeper into his own story ("Just Call Me Hank") and settles into a pocket. The big sound works for a good-time anthem ("The Party's On") and a Mel Tillis kiss-off tune "Mental Revenge" brings the smiles. WIlliams' voice still has great presence, and it's intriguing that one of the architects of a whole genre of country music so clearly loves vacations into other musical waters. The medley cover of a pair of Rev. Charlie Jackson songs won't make you forget the originals, but it's impressive how close he comes. Bocephus is a man that's lived enough lives for 10 men - so when he's filled with the spirit, it shows. The closer, a remake of his own "Born to Boogie" with a bevy of A-Listers, is an outright romp that redeems all the earlier missteps. We don't have many American treasures still with us and still working. Thanks for continuing to punch the clock, Hank.