Waylon, Willie and Hank Jr.

Waylon and Willie, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, RCA, 1978.

HE LIKED RHINESTONE SUITS, and he bought four Cadillacs almost before he bought himself a house. He thought frequent bathing unhealthy, but forced himself to take a bath every Saturday night--as the saying goes--whether he needed it or not. But when Hank Williams died at the age of 27 in the back seat of one of his Cadillacs that December night in 1954, heading down a desolate stretch of U.S. Route 60 for one more gig, the whole nation mourned this strange Alabaman whose country standards like "Jambalaya," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and "Lonesome Me" have entered the pop pantheon. Not that long, because down in Memphis Elvis Presley was recording at Sun and rockabilly was on the rise. But Hank Williams had earned himself a place in American music, and as the son he had named after himself grew up, Hank Williams Jr. was left with the suspicion that nothing he could ever sing or play would erase the old man's nasal twang from anyone's consciousness. He probably never will, but with his New South album, Hank Williams Jr. has done old Hank proud.

Actually, Hank Williams Jr. has been a country singer since his teens, but it was only with the breakthrough Hank Williams Jr. and Friends album of two years ago that his playing was marked with anything but blandness. Then came a rock-climbing trip to Montana, and an accident that left him in the hospital for six months, a desperate interlude during which his mother died. But with last fall's One Night Stands and now The New South Hank Jr. is back, capturing what it is to be Hank Williams' son and what it's like to be a proud Sunbelter in the Age of Jimmy Carter better than anyone else.

The New South is the curious product of three men--in the background is Hank Williams, of course, and he casts a long shadow, as when Hank Jr. sings, in "Feelin' Better," the first and best cut:

Knew all the while, though it was my style

Could they ever forget my name.

Rocked' em in Riley, knocked 'em out of Knoxville

Just couldn't do no wrong.

People went wild and the band said chile

Better keep on playin' your songs.

And the person who makes those curious, almost nonsensical lyrics work with his eerie back-up vocals is Waylon Jennings, almost as if Hank Sr. himself was back there howling into the 24-track tape machine. Jennings also produced this album, and to him must be given credit for the lean, Austin-like sound--this is the first Hank Jr. album in which he has gotten away from Nashville's slick guitar tracks and banks of strings that work for the Ronny Milsaps of the world. Waylon's bit in all this is interesting--he has an ego you could stretch from Port Arthur to El Paso, and it must give him a kick to play a role of fatherly support for Hank Jr., to hear those lines "Waylon and Toy (Calder) are my only boys, I want to say thanks to you/Your fiddle and your steel made me play what I feel and I don't feel lovesick blues." Waylon documented his own Hank Williams problem a few years ago with "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," and he makes the album go.

And although this is fine, fine country music--the only bit of filler is a lackluster cover of Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen"--four key songs, beginning with "Feeling Better" and continuing on side two with "The New South," "Tennessee," and "It's a Long, Long Way to Hollywood" present as evocative a picture of the musician and the road as any recent performers, including Jackson Browne.

"Been eatin' that cornbread, lovin' on a featherbed, smokin' that homegrown, do it on my own--this here music from now on gone be nothin' but homegrown." That's the refrain that runs through The New South: Hank Jr. has assumed his place as the best vocalist in country music, better even than Waylon himself. If you like Hank Williams, check out Hank Jr., or "Bocephus" as he calls himself. He's got the same lonesome blood in his veins.

***

ABOUT A MONTH AGO Chet Flippo wrote in Rolling Stone that since Waylon Jennings was a recluse up in the hills and Willie Nelson had moved to California, the only thing that was left in Austin was the best of the country swing bands. Then he dumped some more on Waylon and Willie. So imagine my surprise when the Waylon and Willie album came out a couple weeks after that with effusive liner notes by--you guessed it, Chet Flippo--some of which bear quoting: "I humbly submit that the world needs a lot more Willie and Waylon right now and a whole lot less of that other crap." Well, ain't that some shit.

The thing is, Flippo is approaching right--we do need a little more Waylon and Willie. Their duet album is amazing, the best country album of the year by a long shot. From the first cut on side one, "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," a tongue-in-cheek hymn to pre-professionalism ("Don't let 'em play guitars and drive them old trucks/Let 'em grow up to be lawyers and doctors and such"), you know this album is going to have some punch and humor. The crazy, whining guitars on "Mamas" come back for an encore in "I Can Get Off On You," perhaps a slight stab at Waylon's Nashville coke bust last fall, and a general paean to the powers of love:

Take back the weed, take back the cocaine baby

Take back the pills, take back the whiskey too

I don't need it now, your love was all I was after,

I'll make it now, 'cause I can get off on you.

The album's other high points come with "If You Can Touch Her At All," a meditative sad song, and "Don't Cuss the Fiddle," which leads into an impromptu chorus of "Goodhearted Woman." But perhaps most engaging is "The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don't Want to Get Over You)" the quintessential country song about putting quarters in the same Wurlitzer every night, playing the old songs and thinking about a woman. And even Waylon's death wish, which came through on the uneven Luchenbach album when he recorded "Sweet Caroline" and sometimes makes you think he wants to be Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck, makes for a surprising cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman."

Waylon and Willie complement each other perfectly, trading lines and singing around each other. The back-up musicians are adequate, but those two voices are what makes the album. Waylon, Willie and Hank Jr. are like having three Cadillacs in a Muscle Shoals garage.