Guest Writer: Adam R. Sinsel
The man has been cranking out a successful music career in Nashville for over five decades. as a five-time Entertainer of the Year, his lives shows are legendary. He’s sold over 70 million albums and had incredible success in the charts, releasing 13 number one albums and 29 that broke the top 10. As for hit singles, he boasts 10 number ones and 42 top ten hits. His work is Grammy winning, Emmy winning, and has garnered loads of accolades from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, and others. He’s been recognized as a BMI Icon, and CMT honored him in 2006 with the Johnny Cash Visionary Award . Sounds like a Hall of Fame career; wouldn’t you say? For 20 years, the Country Music Hall of Fame electors have disagreed. Despite industry changing superstardom, lasting commercial success, and an undeniable impact on this thing we call country music, Hank Williams Jr. has not been inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The question is, why?
To answer our question, a quick review of the election process is instructive. Each year, the Hall of Fame Nominating committee, consisting of 12 members, submits artist nominations for Hall of Fame consideration to a panel of 100 electors throughout the country music industry. Nominees fall into one of three categories: Modern, Veteran, and Rotating. Generally, one nominee can be inducted from each category, for a total of three inductees. Modern candidates are those artists who have achieved national prominence in the last 20 years, and they remain eligible in this category for 25 years. Veteran artists are eligible for consideration 40 years after achieving national prominence. The Rotating category is reserved for non-performer candidates, songwriters, and touring musicians—and rotates yearly between the three . That probably seems like a lot of numbers, but the math here is simple: there are a whole lot of folks waiting around in the Veteran category.
You might be thinking, what about Hank? Is he in the Modern category, or is he considered Veteran? That’s a great question. The nominating committee has a bit of discretion here. Strangely, Hank might be a victim of his own impressive longevity, which makes categorizing his career somewhat subjective. He was touring with Ernest Tubb and other Opry legends in the late 1950s; he made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1960; and his recording debut happened in 1964. By 1969, he was selling out crowds in major cities like Detroit. Moreover, there is a strange duality to Hank Jr.’s career. Although most people don’t think about the young beardless pre-mountain fall Hank, he found commercial and critical success in the 1960’s and early 1970s. In fact, between 1964 and 1974, Hank had already scored 13 top 10 singles, including two number ones . For many artists, that might have comprised their entire career and provided a lifetime of notable acclaim. For Bocephus, this early success foreshadowed something much bigger. After a brief hiatus from being among Nashville’s stars, the 1980s witnessed Hank Jr.’s Balboa-like return as he reached true superstar level; playing hundreds of sold out arena shows each year and tearing up the charts.
Depending on how one defines "national prominence," Hank Jr. could have become eligible for the Modern Category as early as 1984. Which adds up, when you consider that many Hall of Fame prognosticators began listing Bocephus in their Veteran category predictions over the last couple of years. So it appears, that for 20 years the legendary resume of one of country music’s most iconic artists has failed to convince enough of those powerful and private electors to punch his ticket to the Hall.
Apparently, the competition is incredibly stiff, what with bona fide country powerhouses like Barbara Mandrell (2009) in the mix. Relative newcomers like George Strait (2006), Vince Gill (2007), and Garth Brooks (2012) only intensify the competition. Let's face it: Our genre has been loaded with amazing talent, and HOF induction is an extremely competitive game. In the mix, Hank Williams Jr. has had to stand by and watch the Hall of Fame induct artists who traveled the trails he blazed. Unfair? Think again. Reba McEntire, once Hank’s opening act, was inducted in 2011. Vince Gill got the nod before Bocephus despite the fact his real national prominence didn’t even begin until Hank’s era had largely ended.
Before you go off composing hate-mail describing George Strait's symbolism of the American west, or how Barbara Mandrell and Reba paved the way for women like Taylor Swift to self-actualize—listen to reason. No one is saying these artists don't belong in the Hall, but before Hank Williams Jr.?
Obviously, George Strait and Garth Brooks are appropriate and easy picks for induction, and the same is true of Vince Gill. No reasonable person would dispute the claim, but why so early when there is a backlog of deserving artists? And if their accomplishments warranted Hall of Fame induction under the Modern category, where did Hank fall short?
From the late 1980s onward, Hank’s case for induction was similar to those of George Strait and Garth Brooks—undeniable superstars becoming eligible for the Modern category a handful of years after the heights of their stellar careers. Remember, Hank Jr. was dominating country music in 1984—the year that he became eligible for induction in the Modern category—with a number one album, three top 10 singles, and scores of sold out concerts at major venues.
Admittedly, because Hank was still in the prime of his career in 1984, it seems very reasonable that electors may have preferred to wait for Hank to reach his full potential before enshrining him in the Hall of Fame and formally declaring him a part of country music history. There’s the rub. Eventually, Hank did top-out, and by the late 1980s he was quickly being overshadowed by young fresh faces in Nashville, many of which cut their teeth on Bocephus classics. So what were electors thinking every year since 1990 (the last time Hank Jr. had a Top 10 Single)? Year after year, Hank was passed over for other artists—very few of which matched Hank’s accomplishments or impact on the business. For two decades, Hank slipped through the cracks and was denied induction to the Hall of Fame as a Modern candidate. Now, he finds himself in the huddled masses of deserving Veteran musicians hoping for induction to the Hall of Fame.
Now, with Hank’s odds even tougher as a Veteran candidate, electors should take a good hard look at his impressive credentials. Conveniently, the CMA publishes their list of candidate criteria. To help voters make the right decision this year, the CMA’s candidate criterion are listed below with analysis of Hank’s suitability for each. A full description of candidate criteria is available on the CMA’s website.
Basic Standard –
One of Hank's greatest accomplishments has been his departure from the mainstream—first from his father's music, and later from the Countrypolitan-pop fusion that gripped Nashville in the 1970s and early 80s. In an era where country music eschewed the honky-tonk sound of yesteryear for a smoothly southern interpretation of soft rock, Hank burst onto the scene with critically acclaimed albums like 1975's Hank Williams Jr. and Friends. Recorded in Muscle Shoals Alabama with a host of southern rockers, it sounded more like Marshall Tucker than Mel Tillis. Shortly after the album's release, Hank nearly died in a 500-foot fall from a ridge top on Ajax Mountain in Montana. Doctors weren't sure Hank would ever talk or sing again, but after a grueling and painful recovery, Hank returned to the recording studio in 1977, and by 1979 began churning out a string of critically acclaimed albums that were anything but mainstream country. That year he released the Family Tradition and Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound albums—both loaded with hits that continue to influence artists today. Many artists put heart and soul into their work, but Hank Williams Jr. leveraged literal blood, sweat, and tears to develop a uniquely rugged country sound—a sound founded in an inextricable connection to country music history, but predicated on change. Hank Williams Jr. had to change to find himself, he and changed the Nashville Sound along the way.
Individual Candidacy –
Hank Williams Jr. is nothing if not an individual. There will always be a handful of critics that claim Bocephus is living off his father’s name. And they will always be wrong. This bit of musical sophistry is founded solely in ignorance about Hank Williams Jr.’s body of work. Bocephus himself might have put it best when he explained to an interviewer that the name Williams will get you on the stage, but to stay there you have to do something different. Hank certainly went about it his own way. In the 1970’s Hank decided, against his mother’s wishes, to intentionally break the mold he had inherited from his legendary father. Ironically, it was Hank Jr.’s literal break from family tradition that gave birth to the irreverent and raucous sound that came to identify Bocephus—the rocking country blues man, unafraid to push the boundaries of country music and make Nashville squirm. His transformation to a true individual resulted in meteoric success throughout the 1980s. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Hank had become more Bocephus, and less Junior, that the awards and accolades from Nashville began to appear.
Also, consider that the vast majority of Hank’s success occurred later in his career. In the 1960’s, when Hank was still recording and performing mostly Hank Sr.’s music, he managed only had a handful of radio hits and wasn’t exactly racking up the awards. He was still opening for guys like Johnny Cash and dreaming of being a headliner. In contrast, from 1979 to 1990—years firmly within the Bocephus era—Hank’s cutting music and epic live performances made him a superstar status.
And if that isn’t enough, maybe critics should consider the careers of other heirs to music row royalty. If legendary fathers are the golden the ticket to success in Nashville, why haven’t the other sons and daughters of Nashville greats even approached the level of success and influence that Hank Williams Jr. has achieved?
Scope of Activity –
A true triple threat, Hank Williams Jr. is a gifted singer, songwriter and musician. He's a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame—having penned hundreds of original songs. A great many of those songs went on to become Top 10 hits. Hank penned songs have been recorded by George Jones, Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Tracy Lawrence, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, Aaron Tippin, John Michael Montgomery, and many others. In 2008 he was awarded the BMI Icon award, indicating that Hank's music has made an “a unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.” Hank plays seven instruments and wows audiences with his musical diversity, and is perhaps, the only artist you’ll see cover Hank Williams Sr. and Aerosmith in the same show. He's played the blues guitar with B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. His piano tutelage came from Jerry Lee Lewis, and he's tickled the ivories on duets with Ray Charles and Little Richard. Brad Paisley—maybe the best guitarist in country music today— said Hank plays every instrument on stage and "plays them all well." Vocally, Hank has shown incredible range—from sentimental ballads to raucous rural anthems. According to BMI, Hank Jr. is a "robust vocalist capable of conveying startling emotion and making deceptively ordinary characters shine."
Span of Influence –
This one is simple: Over five decades of making commercially and critically successful country music; Two distinct eras of national prominence; Massive success in radio, video, live performances, and television. How many artists, of any genre, in the last 50 years can say that?
Influence on Others –
In 2004, Billboard Magazine’s Ray Waddell wrote, “Today, you can’t turn on country radio without hearing Hank Williams Jr.’s influence, as artists ranging from Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw to Toby Keith and Dierks Bentley have poured through doors that Bocephus kicked down.” Hank's influence may be his greatest contribution to country music. Quite a critical consideration, I should think, bearing in mind that the CMA itself identifies this piece as “a most significant criterion."
Hank’s impact on new artists in Nashville was obvious even before Billboard Magazine pointed it out in 2004. Travis Tritt had a hit in 1990 with Put Some Drive in Your Country, in which he exclaimed, “That’s the first time I heard Waylon and old Bocephus sing.” Tritt has publically credited Hank Jr. as a major influence in his own music and the way he approaches live performances. In 1994, Tim McGraw climbed to the number two spot on the Country Charts declaring, “We got old Hank crankin’ way up loud,” in his hit Down on the Farm. Tim later told Billboard, “Hank Williams Jr. was our hero, and we’d crank him up.”
Since catching on, The Hank Jr. name-dropping and hat-tipping hasn’t stopped. Just to give you and idea:
|2015||Eric Church||Talladega||#1||“Like rockin' Randall, gettin' rowdy.”|
|2014||Florida Georgia Line||This is How We Roll||#1||“The mixtape's got a little Hank”|
|2013||Blake Shelton||Boys ‘Round Here||#2||“Run old Bocephus through the jukebox needle.”|
|2011||Brantley Gilbert||Country Must Be Country Wide||#1||“There’s a stations playin' Cash, Hank, Willie, and Waylon.”|
|2010||Jason Aldean||Crazy Town||#2||“Bend those strings ‘til the Hank comes out.”|
|2010||Jason Aldean||My Kinda Party||#2||“I'm chillin' to some Skynyrd and some old Hank.”|
|2010||Brad Paisley||This is Country Music||#1||“A country boy can survive.”|
|2009||Justin Moore||Small Town USA||#1||“A little Hank Jr. and a six pack of light.”|
|2008||Luke Bryan||Country Man||#10||“Don't be a tape player hater girl were cruising to Hank.”|
|2006||Trace Adkins||Ladies Love Country Boys||#1||“Blaring Hank Jr., yelling, Turn it up!”|
|2005||Brooks & Dunn||Play Something Country||#1||“Hank it up a little, let's rock this bar.”|
|2004||Gretchen Wilson||Redneck Woman||#1||“I know all the words to every ol' Bocephus song.”|
Pretty incredible, huh? And that’s just a partial list. Why does it happen, and so frequently? There are two reasons. First, these artists genuinely respect Hank as a musician and a person. He inspired them, and they want people to know. Secondly, and maybe more importantly: Reference to Hank Jr. is essentially an unquestionable presentation of one’s country credentials. It gets you in the club. When a new artist with a different sound shows up in Nashville, they have to signal to fans that they really are country. What is the most tried and true method for relating to country music fans? Declare your love for Bocephus. Think about what this means? Hank’s impact on our genre, and on the artists who carry on its great tradition, has been so powerful that simply speaking his name or uttering his lyrics is a public relations strategy for emerging Nashville artists—and has been for years.
In addition to all the Hank Jr. homage, consider the impact Hank’s legendary live performances had on other country acts. The LA Times mentioned his noticeably rocking live show in 1988, saying “You see, ol' Bocephus, despite his name and 55 albums that have been marketed as country, isn't really a country performer at all. What Williams does best is rock. Not country-rock or rockabilly. Straightforward, Southern-fried boogie rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. ” If we’re being honest, it’s clear that Hank Jr.’s fiery live presentation of the country format set the standard for a generation of arena-rock style country artists.
In 1984, Hank performed, what Billboard described as a “dazzling special” for the Showtime Network onboard the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Constellation . It seems Hank even influenced entertainer extraordinaire Garth Brooks, who fronted his own aircraft carrier spectacular nearly 17 years later .
Ray Waddell of Billboard Magazine wrote, “Williams was among the first country artists to bring rock- level production values to their concerts. The stage designs of the early 1990s gave fans bang for their bucks.” People that, until then, had only designed productions for major rock acts designed his “million-dollar stage,” in the late 1980s. “Williams was also among the first country artists to dabble in nationally promoted tours, with CPI promoting Williams coast to coast in 1992 .” Artists today are able to expand the country fan base using this very model.
Billboard.com Country News Editor Chuck Dauphin said that Hank’s live shows were a game changer for the country music format . When asked about Hank’s thus far exclusion from the Hall of Fame, Dauphin ended with, “there's no doubt that Hank's time has long come - whether in the modern or veteran category. Either way it's time - pure and simple.”
Quantity vs. Quality –
This is another easy one. Hank has over 70 albums to his credit? How’s that for quantity? Over 30 of those reached the top 10 on country charts. And then there are the awards. Let’s not beat a dead horse here. Quality? Check.
Devotion to Others –
Hank may not get much press for being a Good Samaritan, but then, that stuff doesn’t get ratings. That’s too bad. In 2011, after touring the tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa area of Alabama, Hank personally reached out to CMT to organize a televised fundraiser to help support victims who had lost their homes . With Hank’s help, CMT’s Music Builds concert raised thousands of dollars to assist displaced residents and aid in the recovery project . Similarly, he personally donated $85, 000 to Elba, Alabama in 1990 when flooding severely damaged homes there . There are many such stories of Hank’s generosity. For instance, in 2006 Hank personally visited Randal McCloy Jr., the only survivor of the 2005 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia. After hearing news reports that Randal was one of his fans, and that his wife was playing Hank Jr. albums for the comatose survivor, Hank contacted the family and boarded a plane for Morgantown, West Virginia . After the visit, Hank went on to give Randal a personal shout out during his acceptance of the Johnny Cash Visionary award on the 2006 CMT Music Awards show .
Professional Conduct and Image –
It’s easy to point out Hank’s recent troubles with ESPN, but let’s not forget Hank Williams Jr. spent over 20 years as the voice of Monday night football, introducing millions of viewers to country music for the first time. He enjoyed a respectable working relationship with the various networks that carried the program, as well as the NFL for the vast majority of that time.
As an outspoken patriot, Hank was awarded the Patriot Award for Supporting American Troops and their families in 2013. Over the years, he’s been recognized with many awards for his support to various communities throughout the United States. Putting a five-decade career in perspective, it’s clear: Like all of us, Hank has had ups and downs, but in all: Hank has been a consummate professional and a proud American. What’s more professional or American than the Country Music Hall of Fame?
Personal Morals and Behavior –
Bocephus has a reputation as a wild party animal with a penchant for raising hell, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the man from the myth. Like Johnny Cash and George Jones before him, Hank has wrestled with demons that tend to come with the turf when you’re living the life portrayed in your music, and he too came out on top. The wild days are ancient history for old Bocephus now. These days, Hank is what we all hope to be in our 60’s—a devoted family man who loves being a father and grandfather. As an artist, Hank is widely known as a man of his word—honest to a fault—and loyal to his family, friends, and fans. Certainly the electors can fine some value in that.
Conclusion: It’s quite impossible to fully consider a musician like Hank Williams Jr. in a single article, or to fit his career into a list of subjective criteria. In the end, Hall of Fame electors will have to consider everything here and much more. Given the slough of worthy Veteran artists laying in wait for induction, the electors don’t have an easy task. One thing is clear; Hank Williams Jr. has more than earned a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Modern category or Veteran, it really doesn’t matter. Legions of fans believe Bocephus is in another category altogether—Legendary.
Adam L. Sinsel is a passionate supporter of Hank Williams, Jr. and the curator of the website Bosephus Belongs. He is also a commissioned officer in the United States Navy.
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4. Billboard Chart Activity,
5. CMA HOF Election Process,
6. CMA HOF Election Process, Candidate Criteria,
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11. Chuck Dauphin, e-mail message to author, February 17, 2015.
12. Hughes, M. Hank Williams Jr. tours tornado damage, plans benefit, May 2011,
13. CMT Builds: The Disaster Relief Concert, May, 2011,
14. Associated Press, Gadsden Times, Jul. 1990
15. Associated Press, Hank Williams visits W.Va. mine survivor, USA Today, Jan. 2006,
16. CMT Music Awards Summary, CMT.com, April 2006,