ALMOST THREE decades after his father's death, and after years of personal and artistic turmoil, Hank Williams Jr. stands very much on his own as one of the most significant and successful, if erratic, progressive country artists. Starting in 1975 with the release of "Hank Williams Jr. and Friends," Hank Jr. staked out a musical future with a set of wrenching and painfully honest autobiographical songs wedded to a musical style that openly embraced the new southern rock of the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels. Each album since then has represented both an ongoing internal dialogue and a revealing communique to the country world, directed in part at confronting and resolving the psychological and professional burdens of carrying his father's illustrious musical and disturbing personal legacy.
"High Notes" (Elektra E1-60100) is Hank Williams Jr.'s sixth album in three years. Unfortunately, his recent commercial success and the related pressure for product have resulted in songs without the good humor or confessional poignance of his past work. The 10 songs here are loaded down with the alternating self-pity and self-aggrandizing bravado that are the emotional trademarks of a good ole boy shot full of whiskey on Saturday night.
Starting with the opening cut, "If Heaven Ain't a Lot Like Dixie," half the songs are bloated with a somewhat unsavory brand of southern jingoism that leaves Hank Jr.'s New South with all of the parochialism and none of the grace of the Old South. That opening cut, marching self-righteously along to a pounding beat and sawing fiddles, not only manages the simple-minded deification of the Opry, "my shack" and "pretty little southern belles," but also the vilification of the North: "Send me to Hell or New York City, It would be about the same to me."
Another of these Dixie breastbeaters is "The South's Gonna Rattle Again," a country rocker wherein Hank Jr. somewhat self-consciously puts George Jones, Merle Haggard and a slew of other country stars on his side, bragging: "We got some big old silver eagles and we're flying all over this land." This plane fixation also manifests itself in the album's title, its cover (which shows Williams with his "silver eagle") and in "High and Pressurized."
The album's best song, "I've Been Down," is a slow, brooding tale of a working man, laid off and finally pushed to commit a robbery. Williams sings it in his best lonesome moan. Throw in an overblown and plodding arrangement of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," minus Lennon's whimsy, and a fast rendition of his daddy's song "Honky Tonkin'," previously covered in more effectively rowdy versions by both Gary Stewart and Joe Ely, and you end up with a musically disappointing album and a somewhat troubling one. The best country music has always connected with the universal concerns of its audience. Increasingly, Hank Jr. seems content to connect with that flourishing breed of hippie redneck who is modern enough to smoke dope, go to rock concerts and lift his girlfriend on his shoulders like a trophy. This is not how the South rises again.
Rex Allen Jr.'s new album, "The Singing Cowboy" (Warner Bros. BSK3671), finds the son of one of America's most successful singing cowboys mostly content to ride in daddy's saddle. Rex Jr. and producer Snuff Garrett have teamed up to produce a confused attempt at some modern western music. Allen has got a warm, dry voice and nicely controlled falsetto, but between Garrett's sappy, string-laden production and some misbegotten attempts at contemporary western song-writing, like "Cowboy in a Three Piece Business Suit," the project is subverted. In the end, the record falls disappointingly between the successful revival of classic western music that Riders in the Sky have achieved and the creative refurbishing of western myth and music that Willie Nelson has managed.
Because of the distance between the periods of their success, few country fans probably related David Frizzell with his legendary brother Lefty. It's just as well, because it's hard to believe that a brilliant, hard-core honky-tonker like Lefty Frizzell would have much tolerance for the dreary country pop David has served up on "The Family's Fine but This One's Mine" (Warner Bros. BSK3688). Every song here is part and parcel of the Kenny Rogers' school of modern country music, where mushy ballads full of clever romantic phrases are endlessly delivered in the hushed tones of bedroom intimacy. Even Micky Newbury's wonderful "Let's Have a Party" is given one of Snuff Garrett's grandiose string and piano arrangements that inevitably collapse into a heap of false melodrama. As for the party, Frizzell's mellow baritone drops into a soporific whisper so often on this album that the guests long ago went home for some sleep.