GOING TO EXTREMES

Hank Jr. rediscovers his roots for a house-rockin' new album

Story by Chris Neal • Photo by Larry Hill

In a small, isolated 92-year-old building along lonely Highway 15 in southern Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. is raising a joyful ruckus. He and his band are tearing through "X-Treme Country," a song he just finished writing this morning on the tour bus parked outside.

As he listens to the performance being played back a few minutes later, Hank can't help but dance a little. "Even my old bones can move to that!" he declares. "That's extremely country, brother!"

You can't get much more country than the Almeria Club, a three-room wooden structure built in 1909. It's been a schoolhouse, a nightclub and a community center, but to make his new album The Almeria Club And Other Selected Venues, Hank turned it into a recording studio.

He discovered this unlikely venue when he was invited here for a cookout. "We came down and ate," he recalls, "and someone said, 'I saw your mother and daddy here.' I said, 'What?'"

That's when Hank learned the club's connection to his family legacy - a notorious 1947 show by his late, legendary father that nearly turned violent. "Mother and Daddy were here playing, and a guy came in the door with a shotgun, mad over a girl," explains Hank. "They opened a window and told Mother to get out that way, and told Daddy to get behind the bass fiddle.

"Finally, somebody whacked the idiot with the shotgun on the head, got it away from him, and things got under control. And then Daddy started off a square dance!" Hank erupts into laughter. "They reached out and got Mother back in through the window and started the show again!"

As Hank heard the locals' tales of the Almeria Club, he recalls, "I got this wild idea: 'I'm gonna record my album here!'"

He didn't have far to travel - Hank lives just four miles down the road. And the technological hurdles weren't as high as you might expect. "When I sang on Chad Brock's version of 'A Country Boy Can Survive,' I cut my vocals in my office in Montana," he chuckles. "You can make an album in a truck stop if you want to!"

So Hank temporarily took over the Almeria Club. Racks of high-tech digital recording equipment were piled into one room, while in the next, caterers from a local restaurant spread out a smorgasbord of delicious down-home food on the long wooden table for lunch. In the third room, microphones, cables and musical instruments were loaded in - including a drum set perched on the very stage where Hank's daddy played in 1947.

To play those instruments, Hank put together a stellar band, including former members of The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble. "These guys are wonderful," brags Hank. "When we got into the very first take yesterday, I was smiling."

As its title suggests, The Almeria Club And Other Selected Venues includes a few songs not recorded here in Alabama. There are also tunes recorded at Kid Rock's Detroit home studio and the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, La. - home of the original Louisiana Hayride radio show. Hank has also added "America Will Survive," the new version of "A Country Boy Can Survive" he debuted at Nashville's Country Freedom Concert benefit in October.

Before arriving in Almeria, Hank had already recorded what he calls "the best gospel song I ever wrote" at a Kansas City church. "Cross On The Highway" is a tribute to a couple of Hank's friends: Michael Tellis and football star Derrick Thomas, who died as a result of injuries sustained in a January 2000 car wreck.

"That really devastated me," recalls Hank. "Michael was a very close friend of ours - he took my children to school, we deep-sea fished together in Florida. So I wrote this song, and recorded it in Michael's church with his choir, and I wouldn't take anything for it. When you pass a cross on the highway, you might think differently about it after you hear this song."

It's obvious that Hank's spirit has been rejuvenated by following his music wherever his heart leads him. Trouble is, recording in such far-flung places - a church, a schoolhouse - may have permanently ruined sleek, modern studios for Hank.

"It has exceeded my expectations," he says with a smile. "There's no telling where the next one will be!"

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