Country music royalty as the son of Hank Williams, ol’ Bocephus has garnered quite the music career of his own with more than 50 studio albums, tons of #1 hits, Country Music Hall of Fame status, a handful of Entertainer of the Year awards, Grammy wins, ACM wins, CMA wins, not to mention just about anybody worth a s**t in country music right now would call him an inspiration.
Hank Jr. is a polarizing figure no doubt, but his body of work speaks for itself.
However, most of you already know all that… so today, we’re gonna dive into one of the wildest stories in Hank Williams Jr.’s career… the time he fell off a mountain… literally.
And he lived to talk about it… so here it goes.
The Years Before
In the late ’60s, Hank Jr.’s career in music was starting to take off, but it was largely still in the shadow of his father. He recorded a number of Hank Sr. songs, some even doing quite well on the country charts, but by age 18, he was tired of being a “Hank Williams impersonator” of sorts.
He then cut ties with his mother, Audrey.
Wrapped up in drugs and alcohol, he was about 25 years old when he then made a suicide attempt in 1974.
“There was a doctor, he said: ‘You’ve been taught to look like, act like, and be like Hank Williams your whole life. He died at twenty-nine. And you’re going to beat him.’
Those were his exact words. And he said, ‘I want you to start saying, ‘the hell with that.’ And you go do your thing and you kiss that other stuff goodbye.’ That was some pretty good advice.”
Hank moved down to Alabama to get refocused on music and started playing with the likes of Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings, and the Marshall Tucker Band, before recording his breakout album, Hank Williams Jr. & Friends, in the early part of 1975.
However, before the album was released, Hank Jr. had a hiking accident that would forever alter the course of his career, or at least his image… an accident that he was incredibly lucky to survive.
On August 8th, 1975, Williams and a buddy, Dick Willey, went hiking in Montana, up near the Idaho border around Ajax Lake. With Ajax peak resting up 10,000 feet, Hank encountered a snow field about a thousand feet below it, but when he attempted to cross, the snow underneath him gave way, and fell down the mountain about 500 feet.
His face struck a boulder on the way down, fracturing his skull in a number of places. His nose, teeth and jaw were broken to pieces, his eye was hanging out of the socket, and a fracture in his skull had even left his brain exposed and sticking out through the hole in his forehead.
“I put my hands up to feel my nose. Where my nose should be there’s nothing there. My teeth and parts of my jaw fall out in my hand.
I raise my hand to my forehead, and where my forehead should be, there’s something soft and squishy. That’s my brain, I think.”
Dick Willey was able to run back up the mountain and find a park ranger who would radio for help. Hank was eventually rescued by helicopter, which flew him to Missoula Community Hospital…. but the damage was extensive.
Williams spent over seven hours in surgery, just to get him stable.
The Miraculous Recovery
And believe it or not, the first two people Hank Jr. saw when he woke in the hospital was none other than his godmother, June Carter Cash and her husband Johnny Cash.
“When I fell, there were only two people I saw when I woke up in the hospital bed, and that was Johnny and June.
June put a cross on me and told me it was all going to be OK. I never knew if I would sing again or not, talk again or not, let alone think about what I was going to look like. It was a scary time.”
According to The Tennessean, Audrey Williams, Hank Jr.’s mom flew up to Montana to attend to her son’s needs.
“It’s just a miracle the boy is living, but he’s young and he’s tough. It was just God’s will for him to live.”
Audrey died shortly thereafter.
Hank Jr. would go on to endure nine more surgeries to repair the damage to his head and face. We’re talking plates, skin grafts, the whole nine yards.
To cover the scars and permanent disfiguration, Hank grew out his beard, started wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat… and Hank Williams Jr.’s signature look was born.
“I’ve had dreams about it. I should have died. The doctor said he had worked on plenty of boys in Vietnam and, to be frank, they looked good compared to me.”
And the rest is history…
Many doctors thought might never sing again went on to release another 20-something albums, win countless awards, and forever enshrine himself among the country music legends.
Hank discussed the accident in more detail during this 1987 feature on ABC’s 20/20.
His song “All In Alabama,” a cut off his 1980 Habits Old And New album, details the aftermath of the accident.
14-Year-Old Hank Williams Jr. Make His TV Debut
Taking it back to the beginning.
Much like the name Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the racing world, when you think of country music, it’s hard not to immediately think Hank Williams, as well as his son, Hank Williams Jr.
Of course ol’ Hank is iconic as anybody to every pick up a guitar and sing country music, but ol’ Bocephus was, and still is, quite the powerhouse himself.
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, nobody was cranking out music like Hank Jr., sometimes putting out two or three albums in a single year. He’s a five time Entertainer of the Year winner (both ACMs and CMAs), Grammy winner, and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
At 73 years old, he recently released a blues project, Rich White Honky Blues,which debuted at #1 on the Country, Americana, and Blues charts. A bluesman at heart, Hank Jr.’s father Hank Williams Sr. was taught to play guitar as a small child by a bluesman named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, so this project was a return to his roots.
But speaking of his roots, let’s take it all the way back to the early ’60s when Hank Jr. was just 14 years old.
In 1964, Hank Jr. made his first television appearance of his career on ABC’s The Jimmy Dean Show.
Already standing over 6 feet, the youngster performed a number of his dad’s hits, including “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”
When Jimmy introduced Hank Jr., he called Hank Sr. his favorite songwriter:
“My favorite songwriter, I think I would have to say Hank Williams. He wrote with a lot of heart, he was a fine performer… we are delighted to have his son with us, and we’d like you to give a nice, warm welcome to Mr. Hank Williams Jr.”
Written and released by Hank Williams in 1950, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” was his second-career #1 single on the Country & Western Charts.
Hank Jr. would release a cover himself in 1964, and that would go on to peak at #5 of the chart.
And the rest is history…
Hank Williams Jr. On The Pressure To Be Like His Father: “It Was Driving Me Crazy”
I can’t imagine the pressure that comes with being a famous person’s child.
Especially when the famous person passed away at a young age, and the child is expected to fill the parent’s shoes and continue the legacy, just like Hank Williams Jr. had to do.
As most know, Hank Williams passed away when he was only 29-years-old due to a long battle with alcohol and drug abuse, when Hank Jr. was only three-years-old.
As soon as Hank Jr. turned five, he was pressured by his mother, Audrey Williams, and the rest of the country music world to become exactly like his father, and become the next Hank Williams.
In an ABC 20/20 segment with Barbara Walters back in 1987, Hank Jr. detailed the struggles he faced while always being compared to his father growing up.
“It was always ‘Your daddy went through this stuff, and you’ll have to go through it. We have to go through these things (booze and drugs)’ ya know… depression, that’s a big sport to a lot of these people I think. It was just drilled into me a lot.”
He discussed how he was already playing shows and covering his father’s songs at an incredibly young age:
“I was on the road when I was eight. When they came to see an eight to 10 year old it wasn’t for his wonderful voice, it was because he was the son of Hank Williams.
They were trying to give me a drink when I was 10 or 12, you know saying ‘Hey give ol’ Hank a little drink here,’ the old steel player and everything.”
He was then asked if anybody ever told him he wasn’t supposed to drink and take pills, and he responded:
“No, the road wasn’t ever like that. I grew up quick… I was in the hospital several times, all the way out. The pills, you know, the whiskey, and the whole thing. I was really rolling in it.
I thought I was gonna die a couple times and it scared the heck out of me.”
He also weighed in on the pressure he felt from fans to be like his father, and if it didn’t sound exactly like his father sounded, he would take heat for it:
“They’d be like ‘Sing Hey Good Lookin’,’ and I’d just be like, ‘well I just sang it, you were just so drunk you didn’t hear it or I’m just gonna do this other one.'”
“Oh you little sore, your daddy would have…”
“So that didn’t go over too good… I punched one of ’em, in Salt Lake City and boy that felt good. It was driving me crazy.
I had a psychiatrist tell me he said, ‘Hey you’ve been living, talk like, act like, be like, sing like your daddy, your lifestyles exactly like his, and you’re gonna be gone too.’
I said ‘To hell with this, I’m not putting up with this crap.'”
That’s when he decided at the age of 26 to go a completely different direction with his country music career, and become his own person, transforming into the Hank Jr. we all know and love, taking his influence from the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.
He began to pursue a different sound that mixed together southern rock, the blues, and country music all into one.
Nevertheless, it truly is hard to fathom the amount of pressure he felt on the daily growing up to become a spitting image of his father… but despite that pressure, he emerged a legend in his own right.