LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE
Hank Williams Jr. shifts into daddy gear
On his spacious Tennessee farm, two hours outside Nashville, Hank Williams Jr. looks over his acres of picture-postcard forest. "This is paradise," he declares.
Hank chuckles as he watches his 3-year-old son, Sam, run around with Rascal, the family Labrador retriever. Wife Mary Jane has briefly disappeared into the lakeshore log cabin. The only member missing this afternoon is Hank and Mary Jane's daughter, Katie, 8, who is spending the day with friends. (Hank's children from two of his three previous marriages - Shelton, Hilary and Holly - have all grown and left the nest.)
"Can we go fishing, Daddy?" asks a breathless Sam, as Rascal playfully runs and barks.
"Sure we can, baby," the doting father replies. "We'll go in a minute."
Hank clearly savors each moment with his family in the great outdoors. He's miles away from his rowdy, hard-partying days; truth be told, Hank's idea of a real good time is taking Sam or Katie into the woods for nature walks.
"We get white-tailed deer over there," Hank says, pointing to an embankment across the lake. "It's fun when Sam or Katie says, 'Oh look, Daddy, I found something.' Especially where the deer shed their horns. We also see turkey drinking from the lake. How could we live anywhere but right here?"
Actually, the Hank Williams Jr. family has a couple of other homesteads, including a house near Missoula, Mont. "It's breathtaking to see the mountains from my study in Montana," Hank says. "In July, the lightning storms come in and hit the mountain. It catches on fire a little bit, and then the rain comes and puts it out. It's a very good place to grow old."
There's also his property in Alabama. "It's not as perfect as this," allows Hank. "But it's got a beautiful cabin, built out where me and my grandfather, Alonzo, used to hunt. It's made out of old cypress trees, and there's wild turkey and deer everywhere. It's really in the country."
Suddenly Sam approaches again.
"Daddy, can we fish?" he asks, reminding Hank of their plans.
"Yeah," Hank replies. "We can fish."
Sam watches as his dad takes the boat off the trailer. When it's free, Hank hands Sam a fishing rod.
This proud father is well aware that this time with his family might never have happened - he suffered a near-fatal fall from a Montana mountain in 1975, and another serious hillside mishap seven years later.
"I had a fall that nobody knows about in '82," he says. "I had a sheep that had slid down when I was way up in the mountains, and I had to go across this shale rock to get him. And I started sliding."
Hank stabbed the metal barrel of his rifle into the ground to stop his descent, then had to figure out a way to traverse the steep slope to safety. "I had to dig footholes across 75 yards of shale with my pocket knife, one heel at a time," he says. "I thought, 'Not only have I done this once, but here I am again. Nobody knows I'm here, and I'm going to be grizzly bait at the bottom.' When I finally reached the other side, I thought 'That was so close!' "
But neither incident dimmed Hank's sense of adventure. He regularly takes his family on African safaris and international hunting and fishing trips. "We've been to South America and the Amazon," says Hank. "It's one of the greatest trips there is. But we don't do tennis. We don't do golf."
A stroll through the offices of Hank Williams Jr., Enterprises - near his Tennessee farm - reveals a taxidermist's dream. In one corner stands a stuffed grizzly bear, its paw large enough to cover a human face. In another, a scowling lion serves as a standing souvenir. Mounted on the wall is a gigantic fish caught in the Amazon.
None of these trophies, however, were bagged by Hank Jr. - the big game hunter responsible was Mary Jane Williams, his wife of 10 years and a former Hawaiian Tropic model. "I saw her make a few great shots," Hank admits with a grin. "After I taught her." The couple laughs as they recall the first time Hank flew Mary Jane to Montana.
"She looked at me and said, 'Wow, this is really way back in the woods,' " he recalls with a laugh.
"Way back in the woods," echoes Mary Jane. "I'm from Daytona Beach. I was, like, a surfer girl!"
The adjustment to country life was difficult, but worth the sacrifice. "We've given up certain pleasures to live here," she explains, "like nice restaurants and shopping malls. But then you think about what the kids don't have to put up with out here, like some of the violence."
Later, Hank perches Sam on his knee, as they sit on an old Massey Ferguson tractor inside a tractor shed. "Kids go nuts in here," he says. "They never get to see anything like this. Kids don't need video games; they just see a pile of wood and start playing."
Soon enough, Hank himself will be playing again. He's beginning work on a tribute album featuring some of the young country and rock performers who cite him as an influence. "I feel good when I read interviews with some of the younger folks like Kid Rock, who say, 'Man, we play "Born To Boogie" or "All My Rowdy Friends" all the time,' " he says.
The tribute album is just one more sign that Hank has fully emerged from the shadow of his fabled father. Not that further proof is required: Hank Jr. has racked up 10 chart-toppers and 32 Top 10 hits of his own, drawing from his 70 albums. He still draws concert crowds, though he's cut his touring schedule back to less than 50 shows a year. Decades of success have brought Hank the freedom to do what he wants, when he wants - and he has no regrets.
"I feel pretty good in my position," he admits. "I'm not gonna whine. I've got a lot of awards on the wall. Just being around is good.
"I definitely could do a lot more work than I do," he says, then motions toward Sam. He smiles. "Or I could enjoy these people."