Summary

Hank Williams Jr., although no one suggests he eclipsed his famous father's song catalog, has become an American icon in his own right, an irascible country outlaw with rowdy friends whose Southern rock style of honky tonk has put him, much like contemporaries Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, at the very epicenter of modern country music. Junior isn't his father, but with his outspoken conservative politics and his "everyman out on a Saturday night" approach to life, he emerges as a much stronger personality, almost a brand, if you will, helped in good part by having his modified version of "All My Rowdy Friends" as the lead-in to Monday Night Football for over 20-some years. That little lucrative ritual ended this past year when ESPN pulled the song after Williams spoke his mind on politics during a Fox and Friends appearance in October. The whole affair has fired up Williams, obviously, as his new album, Old School New Rules, is as snarling, blunt, and self-assuredly political as any he has ever done. It's also the first release for his own independent Nashville-based record label, Bocephus Records, and it is indicative of how much Williams has taken over complete control of all aspects of his image, work, and career. That said, for all the conservative, don't-tread-on-me polemics that come through in songs here like "Takin' Back the Country" and "We Don't Apologize for America," it is the songs on this album that don't go there that work the best. "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams," which features a guest spot from Brad Paisley, is sharp, clear country honky tonk, as is the duet with Merle Haggard on Haggard's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" that closes out this set, and "Old School" is a fine personal narrative about learning the ropes that manages to name-check everyone from Dolly Parton to Johnny Cash. Perhaps the best track is a cover of his father's "You Win Again," and it emerges as a swampy, modal piece of the blues. Williams has every right to preach his point of view on America and spout off on his personal politics, but when he turns things simpler and deeper and sings about love, pain, and drinking toward some sort of desperate redemption, he unites rather than divides. There aren't really any new rules on this album, just old-school honky tonk dressed up in shiny new boots. The dance is the same -- but who really wants to dance to politics? Luckily, about half the time here, Hank Williams Jr. is just another of our rowdy friends trying to get through a long Saturday night. ~ Steve Leggett