Not My Country

Not My Country


It’s official: ESPN and Hank Williams Jr. have parted ways. After twenty years of hearing the country music icon howl “are you ready for some football?” every Monday night between September and February, Williams and his “rowdy friends” have bowed out. The controversy he drummed up, however, may not die so easily.

By now most don’t need to be told what it was that got Williams in such hot water--trotting out the ever-offensive yet somehow tired trope of “Obama equals Hitler.” That such a comparison was made on Fox News merely puts it in its place.  Also well-known has been the fallout--ESPN’s decision to pull Williams’ song from their October 3rd telecast. What seems debated now is whether Williams or the network ultimately walked away first.

On Thursday, October 6th, ESPN released a statement saying they had finally decided to not bring back Williams. But according to the singer, it was he who decided to pull the plug on the two-decade relationship. A post on his own website reads:

“'After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE.  It’s been a great run.' -- Hank Williams Jr"

Williams is, to put it in his own parlance, full of crap. He wasn’t fired for exercising his First Amendment rights. He was fired because ESPN finally felt some very palpable consequences that might come from being associated with what Williams is: a bigot.

Sports writer and author Dave Zirin seems not so much surprised by ESPN’s decision as he is by the fact that the network allowed Williams to stick around for so long:

“The man brags that he'll never stop ‘speaking my mind.’ Unfortunately, his mind resides somewhere on a plantation rocking chair. It’s not just his past controversial statements, such as when he sang about Obama’s ‘terrorist friends’ at a McCain Palin fundraiser in 2008.  The guy actually wrote a song in 1988 about the Civil War called ‘If the South Would Have Won.’”

The contents of this song are truly stomach-churning, a window into the mind of a man for whom the slave-holding Confederate States of America are something to be lauded as an accomplishment rather than looked at with disdain. The song remains one of Williams’ favorites, and is prominently displayed on his website right next to the picture of the stars and bars with his face in the middle. Comparing Obama to Hitler was clearly the tip of the iceberg here.

Predictably, Williams’ supporters have jumped to his defense. His manager has claimed that he “doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.” His fans similarly take umbrage at the insistence that support for the Confederacy is racist, that Old Dixie was more about cotillions and hoop skirts than it was about chattel slavery and the cat ‘o nine tails, and that the Civil War wasn’t fought actually over slavery. None of these supporters evidently seem to be aware that the “right” to own slaves was written into the Confederate constitution.

For his own part, the Tea Party supporting Williams has attempted to excuse his comments by wrapping himself in the flag of the class warrior, claiming that the Obama-Hitler comment (which also apparently was supposed to single out John Boehner) came more from a place of outrage at the status quo. “Working-class people are hurting,” he said in a public statement, “and it doesn't seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job--it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.”

And there’s the rub. Williams’ image has long been one of the underdog, the blue-collar straight-shooter whose down home common sense is bound to trump that of any politician or talking head. His long-time inclusion in Monday Night Football has always been an attempt, in Zirin’s words, to “be all things to all people,” and in particular reach out to a white working class who in the mind of ESPN’s executives are mainly gun-toting, flag waving “hicks.”

None of it, however, in either camp, is accurate. Williams was born into the very beginnings of a musical dynasty. By the time of his legendary father’s untimely passing, his mother Audrey could lay claim to a growing fortune. When Hank Jr. was four years old, she was able to pay Senior’s second wife $30,000 for the exclusive rights to the title “Hank Williams’ Widow”--a sum that nowadays would be over a quarter million dollars. With that kind of business savvy, Williams Jr. had a comfortable upbringing.

Even the handle of “Hank Williams Jr.” is something of a stretch. His actual given first name is Randall. Like everything else in Williams’ repertoire, it’s always been an act.

That hasn’t bugged the entertainment executives, though. Far from it, what we now call the “country music establishment” has spent the past several decades manipulating the music of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to get in line with “red state” values. That Williams, a man who has made his living off a parodied version of the working class, should find a home with a network whose own take on class is at best insulting is, to say the least, fitting.

Now that this twenty-year relationship is broken, maybe it’s a small sign of the change that’s in the air. With longshore workers, teachers and hotel staff striking lately, the working class to which Williams supposedly holds allegiance has shown itself to be anything but conservative. With the model of Occupy Wall Street spreading, the elites of all industries are no doubt feeling a bit of heat--including, perhaps, at ESPN. (As a side note, it seems worth pointing out that while Williams has donned the mask of the free speech crusader on his own behalf, he didn’t seem so concerned about the protesters in New York whose First Amendment rights were violated by the NYPD’s pepper-spray.)

Whatever Obama’s shortcomings, the notion that the majority of white working class people think he’s Hitler simply doesn’t hold water. Nor for that matter does Williams’ portrayal of country music as the bastion of reaction (in fact that’s been cracking ever since the Dixie Chicks). And now that we wave good-bye to his trite songs as a Monday night staple, we can be happy to know that our own “rowdy friends” are making a lot more noise than he ever did.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies ( and can be reached at