A Tale of Two Hanks

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Hank, né Hiram, Williams made what is widely considered to be the loveliest country music recorded in the '40s and early '50s, and had an unmatched ability to glory in sin on one song, repent on the next and carry off both with conviction and hangdog cool. There is no Hank Williams-size figure in country music today.

But two Hank Williamses-Hank's son Hank Williams Jr., 52, and his boy Hank Williams III, 29-just released a pair of albums that are miles-apart takes on country and the family legacy. Hank Jr.'s Almeria Club Recordings is his 68th solo album. Hank III's Lovesick, Broke and Driftin' is only his second, but this is the one to own.

Hank III, whose real first name is Shelton, has the weakest set of lungs in the dynasty. He also freely concedes that his songwriting chops don't rank with his grandpa's. The exquisite gift the youngest Hank has inherited is a stone-cold ability to create music about the battle between Saturday night and Sunday morning that rages in the mind of a drinker who wants to stop. When Hank III describes the joys of booze, the guitar boogies along just loud and hard enough-and without weighing down the melody-to suggest the pleasure he finds. When he delves into the pathos of not being able to quit, sickly sounding violins, set against a spare backdrop of guitar, drums and bass, slide in to signify self-loathing. What could be more Hank Williams?

Hank Jr., born Randall Hank, conjures up his father's ghost in a more straightforward fashion. He recorded some of his new album in the real Almeria Club, a bar in Troy, Alabama, where his old man is said to have once performed, and one of his songs, If the Good Lord's Willin' (and the Creeks Don't Rise), is adapted from his dad's old lyric sheets. The way Hank Jr. tries to generate excitement is also foursquare-he relies more on blazing guitar riffs than ingenious melodies. There's more bombast on 30 seconds of Almeria Club's final track, America Will Survive, than on the whole of his son's Lovesick, Broke and Driftin'. Almeria Club is mostly standard contemporary country, with the rock and pop influences that have become a given in that genre.

It's a telling moment when Hank Jr. calls the rock-rapper Kid Rock his ""rebel son"" on The F-Word, a track to which Rock contributes electric guitar. Hank Jr.'s actual son, Hank III, looks a bit like the rakish Rock, with his ponytail and tattoos. But it's Hank Jr. who writes songs close in spirit to Rock's raunch-hound anthems (in Big Top Women, he rhymes: ""She had hundred-dollar bills stuck in her thong/ Well big top women sure got it goin' on""). Hank Jr. and Rock are content to crow about what naughty boys they are. Hank III is quieter, more self-deprecating and ultimately more moving in his portrayal of bad behavior than most artists in any genre on the radio. That may not make him the towering figure his grandpa was, but it does make him a chip off the original block.

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