Making Sense of This Chris Stapleton/Hank Williams Jr. Tour

Sure, Chris Stapleton and Hank Williams Jr. may be a great show waiting to happen, but what kind of message is it sending?
Sure, Chris Stapleton and Hank Williams Jr. may be a great show waiting to happen, but what kind of message is it sending?
L-R: Photos by Becky Quick (Chris Stapleton) and David McClister (Hank Williams Jr.)

At this point, it’s hard to be surprised by anything Chris Stapleton has accomplished. After coming out of virtually nowhere, at least where fans were concerned, he was the most talked-about act of 2015. His debut album, Traveller, still sits at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. To be sure, Stapleton is poised to have a monster 2016, including an eight-city tour with none other than Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr., that pulls into the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on August 12. (Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. this Friday through livenation.com.)

What in the hell? Why in the world would Stapleton, arguably the brightest among country music’s incredibly exciting crop of future stars, go out on the road with an artist who hasn’t been part of the country music conversation since he got kicked off of Monday Night Football for being a racist old coot? It may make sense for Stapleton to tour with one of country’s legends, but Bocephus just isn’t the right choice.

And sure, the aesthetic resemblances are obvious. Both have good songwriting chops and an affinity for ugly hats. There’s a certain similarity between Stapleton’s bluesy sound and the tunes that make Hank Williams Jr. an icon. You’d certainly put “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Might as Well Get Stoned” on the same playlist, but if Stapleton is to be one of country music’s more progressive voices, he doesn’t need to be on tour with one of its most regressive figures.

Hank Williams Jr. hasn’t exactly done much to write home about in recent years. To his credit, though, Bocephus released It’s About Time last week, and it’s certainly not his worst effort. There are hints of his previous success, like the updated version of “Born to Boogie” featuring Brad Paisley and Brantley Gilbert, but the album is ultimately boring as hell. Bocephus has lost his outlaw edge, preferring to stick with shitty, nostalgic stereotypes for a time that never really existed and generic country-music tropes. 

“God and Guns” is much milder than “Keep the Change,” the anti-Obama rant Williams penned in 2012, but it is still a flatly terrible track. To be sure, Hank Williams Jr. has strayed pretty far away from the optimistic, “we love all people” attitude in “Young Country.” Now, he prefers to yell derangedly about President Obama being a Muslim, even if he’s calmed down a bit from a few years back when he compared the President to Hitler.

Stapleton, on the other hand, is the only voice that’s been able to move the needle in mainstream country music in years. He’s the only one who’s really made the idea that authentic, traditional, classic – whatever the hell you want to call it – still has a place on the mainstream charts have any validity. But in teaming up with someone who’s largely made himself the butt of country music’s jokes, he isn’t doing himself any favors.

If Stapleton were heading out with Willie Nelson, I’d sell everything I owned for tickets. He opened for Merle Haggard at Billy Bob’s 4th of July party in Fort Worth last year, and it was probably the best country bill I saw in 2015. The idea of tapping into audiences that appreciate classic country music makes a hell of a lot of sense, but does Stapleton really want to share the stage with someone who goes on insane rants about the “United Socialist States of America” and is prone to hollering out “cocksucker!” on the stage?

The other thing that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense is the real likelihood that Chris Stapleton will outshine his forefather. The years haven’t been easy on Bocephus, and his voice hasn’t held up. Though, the more dedicated members of his audience probably see old, boring Bocephus as a major improvement on drunk Bocephus who was notorious for slurring lyrics and skipping gigs in the 1980s.

Williams is still a dedicated performer and he puts on an energetic show, but he just doesn’t have the presence that he (presumably) did 30 years ago. Stapleton, though, is at the top of his game. He’s got a voice and a stage presence that is magically capable of charming a country crowd into shutting the hell up and listening. Together, they make for a pretty lopsided bill – one half of the show a glimpse into country music’s future, the other a reminder of the conservatism and racism that have plagued the genre since its inception.

This decision by Stapleton does nothing to dispel the notion that country music fans are, to steal a phrase from Sarah Palin, “bitter clingers.” It does nothing to bring new fans to the genre, and may even scare away a few who just aren’t comfortable with the sheer number of Confederate flags that will no doubt be in full force.

Country music has always been dragged kicking and screaming into the future – that’s probably never going to change – but that doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t demand better from the artists that they’re paying to support. If Chris Stapleton represents that future, then he shouldn’t be bringing along one of the most blatant reminders of the genre’s ultraconservative, exclusionary past.

There are a lot of things I’d do to enjoy a good show from Chris Stapleton, and sitting through a Hank Williams Jr. set just isn’t one of them.


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