FAMILY TRADITION

Hank Williams Jr. finds happiness as a new generation takes the stage

Story by Chris Neal

Relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of his tour bus, Randall Hank Williams Jr. - "Bocephus," if you prefer - pulls off his trademark sunglasses and rubs his eyes. After years of hard living, he has the relaxed air of a man comfortable in his skin and content with his life.

"Things could be a whole hell of a lot worse than they are over at ol' Randall's house right now," he says with a chuckle. "The kids are happy, Dad's happy, Mom's happy."

The biggest reason for Hank's good cheer these days is the pride he clearly takes in his family. The words "Family Tradition" emblazoned on the front of his bus don't just refer to Hank and his legendary father anymore.

The latest Williams to enter the music business is 20-year-old daughter Holly. "Holly's really coming on now," says Hank. "She's beautiful and is writing and singing songs - pretty deep songs, by the way."

Holly joins Hank's eldest son, Shelton - "Hank III" - as the new generation of heirs to Hank Sr.'s legacy. Hank sees a lot of himself in his 28-year-old son, who released his debut album, Risin' Outlaw, in 1999.

"Everybody who's seen Shelton knows he's got it," says Hank. "He can tear 'em up. He's got so much talent."

While he's no blood relation, Hank has taken another rowdy upstart under his wing: rap-rocker Kid Rock, whom he refers to in a new song as his "rebel son." Rock, who has sold over 11 million albums in the past two years, loudly and proudly cites Hank as a major influence.

"This guy's for real," says Hank. "He's serious. He knows and loves Daddy's stuff, too. And at my age, I could have a lot worse problems than hanging out with a young guy who's sold a whole lot of records and has a whole lot of fans."

The two have become fast friends - the longhaired singer shot his first deer on a hunting trip with Hank. "Who would believe that Kid Rock, with a black-powder, primitive, flintlock rifle, could do that?" Hank asks proudly.

Hank has stepped into Rock's world, too, attending some of his concerts - despite being no fan of rap music. "We're not real thrilled about going to his shows, and he knows it," Hank chuckles. "But at the first one I went to, I got such a great feeling. He did an acoustic set, and afterward he said to me, 'You know who I learned all that from? You!' He wanted me to know that. I've been lucky in a lot of ways, and that's one of 'em."

As for Hank's real kids, he also has another daughter, Hilary, 22, and two children with his current wife, Mary Jane: 8-year-old Katie and 4-year-old Sam. "They're wonderful," says Hank. "They drive their mama and daddy crazy sometimes, but we'd be pretty lost without 'em. Beautiful little Sam, we were comparing my childhood picture to his last night - it was scary. The eyes and the hair are just alike."

Hank's clan proves that the family who plays together, stays together. "They go fishing with me," he says. "Katie goes deer hunting with me: 'Daddy! There's a deer!' Of course, my wife, 'Eagle-eye,' she can knock off an elk at 500 yards."

Hank has other hobbies, too. "I like to get out with a metal detector and look for Civil War stuff," he says. "I've even got a computer, man! I can look up things on the Internet. Boy, can you spend some money on there, looking for relics or guitars. This painting here or that antique there, or this cannon here.

"I have lots of interests, unfortunately - that's my problem. But anybody who knows me, knows that my main interest is just that country type of life."

In that spirit, the Williams family has several homes, all in placid rural settings - including one in Montana, a new house in Tennessee and one in Alabama. "Usually when we have a houseguest, they want to return," he says.

Hank's Alabama home is not far from his native Banks, Ala., and it's there that he feels most at home. "I don't have many relatives left," he says, "but there sure are a lot of wonderful souls around there. There's an aura, there's a feeling that's not the same anywhere else. I've played all over this country, and the people there look at me a certain way that no one else does."

Lately Hank has been investigating his family history - in particular grand-father Lon Williams, who died when Hank Jr. was 21. "I wish we'd have been together a lot more," says Hank. "He was a wonderful man. It's really exciting finding out about where you came from. It revives me."

Fans can expect to hear that revival of spirit reflected in Hank's music. His new album, mostly recorded at a tiny, 90-year-old clubhouse where his father once played, will be out this fall.

"I wanted to write about things a little more positive and happier than some of the other material that's around these days," he says. "Some people say that if you're real happy you can't write anything good - if that's the way it is, then I'm out of the music business!"

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