Growing up in the long shadow of a parent is difficult enough, let alone growing up in the footsteps of one of the twentieth century’s most influential singer/songwriters. Hank Williams Jr. was born surrounded by his father’s legacy, and he first took the stage to perform Hank Williams’ songs.
In the 1970s, however, Hank Williams Jr. forged his own musical direction and solidified his own place in country music history. After playing with southern rock artists like Waylon Jennings, Toy Caldwell, and Charlie Daniels, Williams Jr. produced his breakthrough album.
Titled Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, the singer/songwriter officially broke from his father’s influence with the 1975 record. Then seven years later, Williams Jr. released his most signature single, “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
We came from the West Virginia coal mines / And the Rocky Mountains, and the western skies / And we can skin a buck, we can run a trotline / And a country boy can survive / Country folks can survive, Williams Jr. sings on the track.
On the surface, these lyrics glorify a southern, middle-class lifestyle. Yet, cultural and personal influences swirl under the surface of “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
Williams Jr. was not, in fact, born in West Virginia, the Rocky Mountains, or even under the western skies as he mentions in the song. The country artist was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. Consequently, these lyrics seem to be speaking to a larger phenomenon of the ’80s, outside of Williams Jr. himself. More specifically, Williams Jr. is boldly upholding the country boy and country folks as the champions against urbanization.
I had a good friend in New York City / He never called me by my name, just Hillbilly / My grandpa taught me how to live off the land / And his taught him to be a businessman, Williams Jr. sings.
He used to send me pictures of the Broadway nights / And I’d send him some homemade wine / But he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife / For 43 dollars, my friend lost his life.
Williams Jr. continues to lean into this idealization of country living over that of the big city. ‘Cause you can’t starve us out and you can’t make us run / ‘Cause we’re them old boys raised on shotguns, he sings.
Part of this intensity may also be due to Williams Jr.’s near-death experience in southwestern Montana in August 1975. While climbing the Ajax Peak on the continental divide, Williams Jr. fell on a rock after the snow beneath him gave way. He suffered several facial and skull fractures from the fall, and he eventually had to relearn how to sing. This event and Williams Jr.’s subsequent recovery empowered the country singer.
“A Country Boy Can Survive” resonated with innumerable music fans, and the song peaked at the number two spot on the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts in March 1982.
After the song’s initial success, Williams Jr. released another version of the track titled “America Will Survive” after the tragedy of 9/11. The country music artist also joined the ranks of Country Music Hall of Famers this past year as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame Class of 2020.