PLANT CITY — Say what you will about Hank Williams Jr. — country rebel, political gadfly, just plain bonkers — but the legendary singer with the outlaw songbook sure has swell timing. In the 77-year history of the Florida Strawberry Festival, the wild-card known as Bocephus picked Sunday for his first-ever appearance at the rural shindig.
Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But with the nation in the midst of a polarizing political brouhaha, and the Republican National Convention coming to Tampa in August, the behatted rabblerouser who's still swirling in a stew of controversy after comparing President Obama to Adolph Hitler couldn't have asked for a toastier hotbed on which to unload his "Taking Back the Country Tour."
And don't you know the proud son of Hank "Your Cheatin' Heart" Williams jumped right into the fray, opening his raucous 75-minute set on the Wish Farms Soundstage with the stomping Keep the Change, an anti-Obama throwdown: "This country sure as hell been goin' down the drain / We know what we need / We know who to blame / United Socialist States of America." He then told the president "to head on back to Chicago."
It didn't exactly whip the crowd of 8,000 (4,000 short of a sellout) into a fervor, although the 55-degree chill could have been the reason for that. Even the newly crowned Florida Strawberry Festival Queen Chelsea Bowden, who was sitting in the front row, barely moved, but royalty can only boogie so much.
Instead, fans saved their loudest cheers for songs like Kaw-Liga and A Country Boy Can Survive. If you were expecting a political rally, it wasn't. As it turned out, folks were there not so much to boo the powers-that-be, but to cheer a 62-year-old eccentric. Williams sells Confederate flags with his name emblazoned on them, but he also howls of "getting stoned all the time" on relatively libertarian hits such as Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.
The truth is, Williams was altogether likable and, for the most part, tame. That wasn't the case on Oct. 3, 2011, when the singer, for so long the are-you-ready musical voice of Monday Night Football, made an appearance on Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends. When discussing a recent golf outing by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner — a Democrat and a Republican hitting the links together — Williams said, "That'd be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu."
When given a chance to retract the comparison, or at least soften the blow, Williams didn't. ESPN, the sports network that broadcasts MNF, quickly relieved the singer of his duties, ending a gig he'd had since 1991.
In a statement, Williams wrote: "By pulling my opening Oct. 3, you 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."
Williams certainly isn't the first entertainer, or country act, to let his politics be known. On March 10, 2003, on the brink of the Iraq invasion, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, used Shepherd's Bush Empire theater in England to demean then-President George W. Bush: "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The fallout was intense; country fans and artists turned on the trio.
Williams doesn't seem to have lost much of his constituency. In fact, his rather fallow career was given a boost. "After he made his speech, it gave him a whole new following," said Patty Sebok, a fan from Seminole, before the show. "I think it's probably the smartest thing he ever did."
She might be right. Williams, along with Reba McEntire, who plays here on Sunday, charged $50 per ticket, the highest asking price in the festival's history. McEntire remains a hitmaker, but Williams apparently is hot again more for his rhetoric than his records.
"I don't think (the ESPN firing) was fair," said another fan, Tampa's Joe Johnson, 31, a "free-thinking" voter who pulls the lever for "whoever's best for the position." "His job and what he says on the side should be separate. His political views shouldn't cost him his job."
Shawn Pough, 38, of Lakeland, agrees with Johnson. "It was just a comment," he says. But when asked if he had any interest in buying a ticket to the concert, he paused, watching his daughter on a swing ride. "Would I go to his show?" he asks. "Probably not."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.