Review: Hank Williams Jr., Chris Stapleton unite all their rowdy friends at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre
It might be the perfect country tag team of these times: Red-blooded, star-splattered iconoclast Hank Williams Jr., still rootin’ and tootin’ along at 67; and flame-throwin' hairstack Chris Stapleton, the progressive outlaw darling who’s reaped armfuls of accolades for his debut album Traveller.
One still hawks $25 Confederate flags emblazoned with his famous name. The other just played Lollapalooza. If these guys can team up for a co-headlining tour, doesn’t our splintered nation stand a chance, too?
Their sold-out concert on Friday at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre – just the second stop on an all-too-brief August run – offered hope. Sure, there was division (those aforementioned rebel flags, for example, and several scuffles among Hank’s rowdier friends in the audience) but for the most part, this was a night designed to unite country music – and, in some ways, the country as a whole.
Start with Stapleton, Nashville’s It Boy of the past year. It hasn’t even been 12 months since his coming-out party at last year’s CMA Awards, and it sounded on Friday like it still hasn’t sunk in yet.
"This is more people than in my entire hometown," he said, surveying the crowd of 19,500.
Yet Stapleton does seem to have loosened up since a January show at Amalie Arena, lifting his eyes from below his hat's brim ever so slightly more often, sipping from a Solo and hinting at a desire for something stronger. ("It smells like me and somebody out there have something to talk about," he told the pit.)
Hemming his small but stellar band into a tight patch of stage, Stapleton kept his eyes locked on wife/singer/spiritual lodestar Morgane most of the night. She sang sweetly and he snarled like a chainsaw as the songs erupted from his guitar – the bounding Nobody to Blame; the springy, swampy voodoo-rock of Outlaw State of Mind; the sweet, compassionate ballad More of You. Morgane also got a song of her own, a menacing twist on You Are My Sunshine that transmogrified into something approaching the blues.
When Stapleton set the crowd howling by teasing a few bars of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird -- no, really, he went there -- he knew exactly what he was doing. He floored them with his slowest-burning rockers, little kindling-stick licks that blazed into stadium-sized fires -- Fire Away, The Devil In Music and Tennessee Whiskey -- over four, five and six minutes.
A trickle of folks filed out after Stapleton, suggesting the fan bases of country's twin bearded behemoths may be further apart than we realize. (After all, Williams told me before the show he hadn't even heard of Stapleton before this tour paired them up.)
Those who stayed for Bocephus got a set that was all over the map. Williams sauntered out in a cap that read ICON, flashing mad-eyed ringmastery and roaring braggadocious boot-stompers Are You Ready for the Country, If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Dixie and his daddy’s Move It On Over. Things got even more raucous with Just Call Me Hank and All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.
Williams didn’t do much politickin’, outside of playing set-in-his-ways singles like If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie and Libertarian screed Keep the Change, a song about keeping his guns, religion and money safe from the “United Socialist States of America.”
Instead he spoke more about his family’s place in country music history, covering parts or all of his daddy's Your Cheatin’ Heart, There’s a Tear In My Beer and Lovesick Blues; and pimping his family’s exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame with Trumpian bluster. “It’s the biggest thing they ever had in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he said.
For about half the set, Williams sat at a piano or with an acoustic guitar, bellowing mini-medleys that showcased his deep catalog, underrated musicianship and unparalleled first-person knowledge of the history of country music.
The wheels came off the wagon when the snippets started getting more and more succinct -- a little Johnny Cash, a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, a little Run-DMC, all mushed together in sloppy, slapdash succession, was all too much, too fast, by the end.
But even then, there was hope. Williams invited Stapleton, Morgane and his children Holly and Sam Williams out on stage to sing his carved-in-stone closer Family Tradition. And he ended his rural manifesto A Country Boy Can Survive by altering the lyrics to say: "America can survive … Americans will survive.”
Hey, if Hank Williams Jr. fans and Chris Stapleton fans can survive this summer tour together, there might be hope for us all.
-- Jay Cridlin