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Dueling Triple Plays From Hank Williams Jr.

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

If you are a Hank Williams Jr. fan, beware.

Lots of country stars have competing single-disc greatest-hits packages from different record companies, each documenting various phases of the artist’s career.

But Hank Jr. may be the first contemporary country artist to have rival, three-disc box sets released by different labels.

“Living Proof,” just released by Mercury Records, is drawn from the MGM recordings that the country singer made between 1963 and 1975, when he was still largely in the shadow of his father.

“The Bocephus Box,” new from Curb/Capricorn Records, focuses on the subsequent rock ‘n’ rowdy style now associated with the singer. This is the essential one for fans looking for the artist’s main body of work. The Mercury album is primarily for fans who are curious about the singer’s musical evolution.

Hank Jr. was just 3 years old in 1953 when his father--arguably the most influential and acclaimed figure in country music--died tragically of a heart attack at age 29.

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Hank Williams Sr. wrote such heartache country classics as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “You Win Again.”

Hank Jr.'s first hit was a version of his father’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” in 1964--and the Mercury box set includes his versions of almost a dozen other Williams Sr. songs.

By the early ‘70s, however, Hank Jr. was restless musically, eager to move toward the aggressive, rock-oriented style that became his trademark in the ‘80s.

But his career almost ended in 1975 when he fell some 500 feet while hiking in Montana. The near-fatal accident, which reportedly broke every bone in his face, stripped away a part of his skull, leaving his brain exposed.

Miraculously, Hank Jr. recovered--and was soon back in the studio, apparently more determined than ever to develop his own musical vision. In fact, “Living Proof,” one of the last songs he recorded for MGM, was a virtual declaration of independence. Sample lyrics:

I’m going to quit singing all these sad songs

‘Cause I can’t stand the pain . . . .

Hank Jr. had a series of modest country hits, including “Mobile Boogie” and a version of the old “I Fought the Law,” for Warner Bros. Records in 1977 and 1978, but the “Bocephus” set (the title was the nickname given to him by his father) picks up his career in 1979.

“Family Tradition,” the opening selection in the set, was the start of a string of Top 10 singles that Hank Jr. recorded for Elektra--songs like “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” “Dixie on My Mind” and “All My Rowdy Friends.”

Besides his later hits for Warner Bros., the set also contains seven previously unreleased live tracks, including versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and the Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.”

Though the claim in the “Bocephus” liner notes that Hank Jr. is rivaled only by Prince for his diversity as an artist is an overstatement, the veteran musician has certainly stretched the boundaries of country, forging a dynamic country-rock style that served as a major influence on such newcomers as Travis Tritt.

“It’s funny that I’m considered a country artist,” Hank Jr. says in the liner notes. “People like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Van Zant--those rockers, they’re some of my biggest influences.

“Around the time I signed with Warners (in the mid-'70s), I was listening to everything. In the bus, I would listen to Doc Watson, then Skynyrd, then Jerry Lee, then the Allman Brothers, then Jimmie Rodgers. Phil Walden (the head of Capricorn Records) had the best line about those guys. They’re not country singers. They’re not hillbillies. They’re white blues singers. That’s what my daddy was, and that’s what I am.”


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