Rough and Rugged: Hank Williams III’s Return to Country

When it comes to having a pedigree on his belt, Hank Williams III is a poster-child. As the grandson of one of the forefathers of country music and the son of a country rock mainstay, Hank III has a family rooted in the fundamentals of southern spirit and down-home tradition. But even with country in his blood, Hank III has earned himself a reputation of diverting from that long-tread path. He’s experimented with heavy metal and punk, all while performing in every role, from singer to drummer to bassist to banjo. But his reputation is taking a rest with Brothers of the 4×4, a return to the musician’s country roots. Though the songs are too lengthy to really experience in their prime without losing steam, Hank III’s multi-faceted talent is still very much alive, even in his most traditional of genres.

The realm of modern country music has been about palatability. The roots of country twang and guitar virtuosity has been set aside in favor of accessibility and pop success. Hank Williams III, like his grandfather and father before him, has ignored the simple song structures and generic lyrical content, instead embracing a “classical” approach to the genre. Songs have demonstrated exciting rhythms, along with virtuosity using stringed instruments like the banjo and acoustic guitar. It’s homey, and while some might call this philosophy “dated”, it still has substance and it allows for a lot more instrumental experimentation on the songwriter’s part. Hank III is a fascinating songwriter. “Farthest Away” is a steady country ballad that has a surprising amount of instrumentation to keep things interesting, despite its smooth, buttery groove. The gloomy sounds of “Ain’t Broken Down” is a worn burn, one that sounds pristinely somber, while the energetic fiddles and guitar twangs come alive in “Lookey Yonder Commin’” (especially in the final instrumental stretch). Williams’ nasally snarl morphs into a steady croon throughout the album (and vice versa), so there’s a lot of variety between the songs themselves.

While Hank Williams III has grown a collective following for his recurrent desire to step outside his established country genre, Brothers of the 4×4 is a country album through and through. The rhythmic riff snarls from Hank III in the laid-back “Outdoor Plan” shows a smoother and much less serious side of the country world. The title track is another song that embraces relaxation and comfort in the outdoors; it doesn’t clutter itself with melodrama, instead sounding off on mudding and hitting the gas. It’s very refreshing, as modern country still sounds restricted in its own skin. The moments in pop country that attempt to celebrate living life and playfully writing music are rare and normally forced, so Hank III’s ideology of taking country back to the roots (roots established by his grandfather and his peers) is exciting and shows that the genre hasn’t lost that rugged charm it built itself on.

Unlike the works of his father, Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III likes to revel in his music. The result is a remarkably long album. Songs rarely drop below the five-minute mark, with the longest, the opener “Nearly Gone”, clocking in at nearly nine. While you do get a sense of Hank Williams III’s skill with rhythm and technicality on the strings, the songs rarely break up their own monotony and move outside their established vibes. They simply don’t change enough. After about three minutes, the songs drag on longer than needed. Compared to the works of his father, many of which were shorter and more radio-friendly recordings, Hank III’s songs on Brothers of the 4×4 overstay their welcome. Hank III’s song-by-song diversity is encouraging and a fresh form for the genre itself, but the songs themselves are simply too consistent individually, dragging on into repetitive and overly extensive territory.

Brothers of the 4×4 is a fun and good-spirited album. Even in its slower and steadier moments, it has a sense of soul that carries it further than other releases from the year. Hank Williams III remains a multi-faceted and technical musician, one who can carry multiple influences around and still add a panache and power to them. But the songs themselves, for all their different vibes and upbeat rhythms, don’t have the endurance to carry themselves for their respective lengths. Brothers of the 4×4 sounds too padded for its own good because of it. But the moments of excitement and spirit are still apparent; Hank Williams III is able to take his most classic of genres and make something remarkably contemporary. While he will continue to be known for his experimental musical guts, this return to his familial musical bloodline is smart, laid-back and it’s a country album that may even turn some heads of those new to the genre.