Hank Williams—the first Hank Williams—was born in 1923 in Butler County, Alabama, and grew up in and around Greenville, the county seat. In the early 1930s, when the young Williams was shining local timber workers’ boots, he befriended Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a black blues musician forty years his senior. Payne, whose nickname was a joking reference to the teetotaller he wasn’t, is the one who taught Williams to be a musician: how to play the guitar, how to assemble a song, and how to put on a show. We know little about the apprenticeship, but whatever it looked like, it must have helped. When Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953—in the back seat of a Cadillac, as every country music fan knows—he was twenty-nine years old and a superstar. His body had been broken by alcohol and pain medication while his songs were rocking and haunting living room radios across the country.
Williams’s relationship with Payne is part of country music legend, and as with a lot of legends, many details have been lost to time. By 1953 Payne had been dead for almost fourteen years, unable to enjoy the renown Williams tried to bestow upon him—he often said Payne gave him “all the music training I ever had”—or to give his own account of their friendship. But Williams’s stature, not just in country music but in American music, even America itself, has turned this blurry space in music history into a part of the nation’s struggle to tell itself its own story.
For some, the story is nothing more than a tale from a country song: Maybe the greatest country musician of all time learned his trade from an old black man playing blues on the street in southern Alabama? Come on. One 1994 biography of Williams (since heavily revised) claimed that he “probably already knew all the chords Payne knew.” In hagiography, Williams doesn’t need Payne to turn him into who he became; he did that on his own, a hillbilly Shakespeare channeling the very soul of the white South. For others, the legend of Hank and Tee-Tot has proved impossible to resist. Here is the street-smart, underappreciated black blues guitarist who passes his knowledge and experience on to a keen white boy who cares only for the music and nothing for the racial apartheid of his day: a friendship that belies all the stereotypes of country music. This is the story much of America wants to tell itself, and the story that country music—at least its mainstream, commercial-radio variety—wants to hear.
It is also the story that Williams’s son, the country superstar Hank Williams Jr., is currently telling to make sense of his first straight-up blues record, Rich White Honky Blues. He has long insisted that despite his father’s origins as a poor, white Alabama country boy who seemed to have sauntered out of a Walker Evans photograph, “people are mistaken. Daddy wasn’t a hillbilly. He was a bluesman,” as he once said in an interview. “He was a rock and roller. And I’m in the same family tradition.” In the Williams’s musical history, he told Country Standard Time, “everything starts with Tee-Tot and flows from there.”
On the face of it, the idea that Hank Sr. was a bluesman is not implausible. Willie Nelson once said that his best songs are so alive with the blues that “you can’t miss it.” Even if the influence might not be obvious to the average listener of Hank Sr.’s famous “high lonesome” sound today, it makes sense: his music is the product of a region that was and is culturally, politically, and economically as black as it is white, and as blues as it is country. In addition to early “hillbilly” music like the Carter Family, the blues, European folk music, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and blackface minstrelsy all informed the music that Williams grew up to make. The same can be said of country music’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers (from Meridian, Mississippi), and other singers who helped shape his sound, like Emmett Miller. Rodgers’s 1930 record “Blue Yodel No. 9” is a hugely influential bluesy stroll lifted to a different plane by Louis Armstrong’s cornet, a song that helped shape not just Hank Sr. but a musical generation. Listen to Miller’s 1925 version of the Tin Pan Alley song “Lovesick Blues,” and its influence on Williams’s own rendition—the song is now so closely associated with him that most people think only he could have written it—is obvious.
Both Rodgers and Miller began their careers as blackface minstrels, singing what we might paradoxically call the world’s first self-consciously “white” music. The relationship between minstrelsy and country is complicated. To the contemporary ear, minstrel songs’ instrumentation, audience, and vocals sound a lot like an early version of country music. The combination of fiddle and banjo (an African instrument) was standard in blackface shows, as was the simplicity of the arrangements, the exaggerated southern accent, and the “yodel” that both Miller and Rodgers made central to their singing styles. Minstrelsy’s popularity faded just as what we now call country music emerged as a commercial genre. Billboard published a regular minstrelsy column until 1939, just eight years before Hank Sr. had his first hit on the “hillbilly” charts, “Move It on Over”—and ten years before “hillbilly” was renamed “country and western.”
But country music is not just a modern derivative of the minstrel show. On the contrary, it is “a crazy bastard sort of thing,” as the music journalist Nick Tosches once put it. All of American music is there, and more. So could it be true that Hank Sr. was really a “bluesman”? Is his son a “bluesman” in the “family tradition”? And does it matter?
On one hand, maybe not. Who’s to say who can sing the blues? Who gets to decide where the blues ends and country—or jazz or soul or rock and roll—begins? On the other hand, the question “Was Hank Williams a bluesman?” probably matters a lot more than Hank Jr. and his fans would like it to, because it is impossible to talk about the blues, country, or where the two might overlap without talking, explicitly or not, about race, authenticity, and contemporary America’s relationship to its past.
What is perhaps most interesting about Rich White Honky Blues, in fact, is the way it answers these questions in the very act of trying to brush them aside. The record is a claim that the relationship between Hank Jr. and the blues is authentic, and by extension that the racial politics of American music are superficial and the histories that animate them can be overcome by a simple affirmation of shared Americanness. But Hank Jr. being Hank Jr., and country music being country music, the idea that this could settle matters is untenable. Hank Williams Jr. is not just Hank Williams Sr.’s son, but a brash, rich, conservative nativist. He has been extraordinarily successful commercially while gleefully attaching himself to virtually every right-wing cause over the past three decades, from proud homophobia (“Dinosaur”) to anti–Black Lives Matter rhetoric (“Take a Knee, Take a Hike”) to violent, survivalist libertarian fantasies (“Country Boy Can Survive”). In 2011 his theme song was removed from Monday Night Football after he compared Obama to Hitler. Perhaps most important of all is his incessant celebration of an aggressive Confederate-flag version of the South. The list of songs is long, but “If the South Woulda Won” is exemplary: “If the South woulda won we woulda had it made.” Hank Jr. has said that his father’s music “gave voice to people who had traditionally been ignored—even despised—the lower class southern white…the black field worker,” but he has clearly chosen to speak for a narrower, meaner demographic.
The “we” who woulda had it made are obviously not the people most associated with the blues. Hank Jr.’s is a “we,” common to certain parts of the country genre, that seems designed to recruit white people, as if reminding them of their whiteness. The careful work of scholars like Barbara Ching, Charles Hughes, and Diane Pecknold makes it clear that the “intermusical” histories that made Hank Williams possible are, and continue to be, what makes country possible. There is no country music that is not tied inextricably to the music of black America, and other Americas too. But that is not the feeling one gets; that is not something one would ever learn on a long drive listening to country radio. There is a reason that Charlie Pride, the chart-topping black country singer of the 1960s and 1970s, used to greet live audiences who had only ever heard him on the radio by saying, “I guess you’re surprised to see me coming out here wearing this permanent tan and singing country music.”
When Tosches published his rollicking account of country music, Country: The Biggest Music in America—later resubtitled The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll—in 1977, he painted a picture of the genre’s origins that is a photographic negative of its popular image as conservative, white, and God-fearing. In the process, Tosches scratched out lines in American music history that most Americans, especially white Americans, took for granted. Instead of tapping into some deep vein in white American musical culture, we’re told, the main contribution of Rodgers’s recordings in the 1920s and 1930s was making “black music accessible to white audiences.” The stories of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams—all of them and more Tosches retold as part of the “crazy bastard” mix of musical traditions, volatile and often violent race and gender politics, bald-faced commercialism, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. Greil Marcus (whose 1975 book Mystery Train did for rock something like what Tosches did for country) echoed Tosches when he said Hank Williams was “a white Ray Charles” because “‘country’ Ray Charles won’t do; Charles was country himself.”
The question, of course, is if that’s where it comes from, how did we get to the blond Christians singing soft rock with a southern accent who overwhelmingly make up mainstream country music today? The historian Karl Hagstrom Miller provides a very convincing, if partial, explanation in Segregating Sound (2010). In the first half of the twentieth century, he writes, a broad array of forces, from folklorists looking for “authentic” black and white culture, to music publishers’ marketing efforts, to artists’ attempts to carve out an audience, reduced southern music to
a series of distinct genres associated with particular racial and ethnic identities. Music developed a color line. The blues were African-American. Rural white southerners play what came to be called country music.
Even though “from the age of slavery into the twentieth century, musicians copied, stole, and collaborated across the racial divide,” the forces inscribing the
emergent musical color line eventually brought the logic of segregation into the realm of sound and style, linking sonic signifiers of race to the corporeal bodies and physical landscapes that Jim Crow already had been trying to contain for several decades.
Miller is careful to point out that this earlier “interracial musical culture” was not a rose-colored version of the legend of Hank and Tee-Tot writ large: it “had nothing to do with interracial harmony or equality.” What changed was neither the music nor, for the most part, the instrumentation. What changed was who could play what, whose music was “authentically” theirs.
So in some ways we could tell the story of twentieth-century country music as the slow severing of the genre from its origins in histories that were sometimes terrible yet also multiracial and culturally and geographically complex. In other words, the story of country music is a story of the erasure, both intentional and unintentional, of the music and cultures in which it originated. But it is also the story of the entanglement of popular culture and politics in America.
Contemporary country music is part of the consolidation of what it means to be white in the United States. In some ways, it has become even more important in recent years as the polarization of American politics has played out through the “culture wars.” These struggles are always, if not only, about race, and particularly about a nostalgic posture of white dislocation and disempowerment, a lost used-to-be that seems to many, retrospectively, to provide the very foundation of their identity.
Even though country music’s artists and listeners are probably more diverse than ever, this image of the genre as fundamentally reactionary may also, ironically, be at a peak. When Morgan Wallen, among the biggest names in mainstream white “bro country,” was caught on video using the N-word, the ensuing criticism so enraged his fans, they made him the best-selling artist in country. Trump’s occasional golf partner Jason Aldean recently cashed in on his MAGA credentials with “Try That in a Small Town,” a whining ode to rural white victimhood that shot to number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song is a warning to all you city-slicker liberals of what will happen if outsiders mess with “good ol’ boys, raised up right.” (“See how far you make it down the road/Around here, we take care of our own.”) From racist country legend Hank Snow campaigning for the segregationist George Wallace, to Merle Haggard’s nostalgia for “when a girl could still cook/And still would,” to Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels ranting about “ragheads” after September 11—Aldean is part of a country music tradition, though not the only one.
All these historically loaded narratives and claims are always roaring, nonstop, down the river of American music. To listen is to step into it. Which means that when Hank Williams Jr. releases an album entitled Rich White Honky Blues, that history can’t help but pile up behind the record like a logjam. According to a widespread version of common sense, this is an impossible album, because “rich white honky blues” is a triple oxymoron. It’s the unspoken history that makes the title funny. As Hank Jr. sings, “I’m a rich white honky/But I know how to play the blues”—emphasis on the “but.”
The joke only works, of course, if the album works too, which mostly it does. The songs—several covers, with a couple of originals in the mix—are driving, if too similar, old-school electric blues, played by a collection of accomplished musicians. The material fits the popular image of that tradition; a lot of it, as you might expect, is about women and unrepentant desire (the first single, a cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Georgia Women,” captures the whole record in one song). There is even a requisite I-went-and-shot-my-unfaithful-woman song (the opening track, “.44 Special Blues”). The production, by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, captures both the gritty timbre characteristic of iconic blues players like Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters (all of whom are covered on the album), and Williams’s distinctive growling vocals, which have remained powerful into his seventies.
Hank Jr. is fond of saying that he lives by something Hopkins once told him: “Country music ain’t nothing but white people’s blues.” In fact, the project might seem like Williams’s attempt to reaffirm the forgotten connection between country and blues, to mend the historical rift in southern music, and southern culture by extension. The trouble, which even Auerbach’s generous touch and talented musicians can’t elide, is that while listening to him claiming the blues as his own, you can’t un-hear Hank Jr. declaring that “if Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie” he doesn’t want to go. Worse still, the assumption seems to be that the Tee-Tots of the world, retrospectively re-narrated into the origin story of country music, will be grateful to be included. The act of personal and political revisionism the album represents is its most lasting contribution.
Like his father, who occasionally recorded as Luke the Drifter, Hank Jr. has performed under different names over the years, including Luke the Drifter Jr. The best known of these alter egos is Bocephus (his father’s nickname for him, borrowed from a Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist’s dummy). Bocephus was initially adopted to separate his rowdy country-rock persona from his less brash early country recordings, but over the years Hank Jr. and Bocephus have merged into one manspreadin’, rebel-yellin’ country rocker. Rich White Honky Blues revives another alter ego, his blues “aka” Thunderhead Hawkins, whose first song was the opening track of the 2002 album The Almeria Club Recordings, which also includes “Tee Tot Song,” a saccharine homage to the friendship between Hank Sr. and Payne. Though this character raises some questions—“R.L. Burnside! Thunderhead Hawkins!” he hollers proudly in the introduction to “Georgia Women,” as if placing the two in the same musical lineage—Thunderhead dismisses any talk of race, history, politics, or anything else complicated in the music. As Williams put it in an interview with Taste of Country, promoting the record:
My ass culture shit. Good music is good music. That’s one of the greatest things in here. There’s no political shit, zero! None! Thunderhead don’t sing about political shit. Don’t give a shit about it. This ain’t Hank Jr., this is Thunderhead Hawkins, brother.
The country music industry celebrates this, hoping everyone ends up on board, not saying much, just boogying to Hank Jr. playing “black” music for reasons they don’t want to think too hard about, and don’t know how to talk about.
Luckily, Hank Jr. does not get to decide what’s political, and the idea that this record isn’t is maybe the most political thing about it. The point is not that white people can’t play the blues—many have, including, perhaps, Hank Sr. The problem with this record, and with the disingenuous politics of “this ain’t political” that characterizes so much contemporary right-wing discourse, is a lack of respect for the possibility that what’s at stake, the things over which politics is a struggle, may not be the same for all—a disingenuousness all the more glaring in light of some country musicians’, including Hank Jr.’s, unrepentant reactionary politics. The message is clear: when I make claims to what you feel is yours, it’s not “political,” but when you come anywhere near what I believe is mine, it’s a declaration of war.
But this is the blues we are talking about, a music freighted with beautiful, terrible, and ineradicable histories. Can you fly the Stars and Bars all your life, and then pick up the blues as if it had no strings attached, as if it had always been yours anyway? It turns out that when you do, the blues can’t help but sound as white as much of country music. In a way, that is the whole point of the exercise. But the problem is not country music. The problem is that we hear it as white when it never was and never will be only white. Country is beautiful, meaningful, and at its best—like the songs of Hank Williams Sr.—it captures what James Agee once called “certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”
The task is not to change the music, but to change how we hear it, who we hear when we hear it, and to learn to hear in it the unlimited breadth and depth of the human experience. That is the whole point of country music, and that is what nonwhite country musicians and listeners have been doing for decades: artists like Ray Charles, Stoney Edwards, and Tina Turner (her first solo album was 1974’s Tina Turns the Country On), and, today, Mickey Guyton, Gabe Lee, Brittney Spencer, Charley Crockett, and Adia Victoria. Many white artists—Jason Isbell, Margo Price, the late Loretta Lynn, and more—have welcomed these powerful voices too, with a humility Hank Jr. has no time for, because they are part of what country music makes possible.