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HANK JR.'S LEADING THE PACK ON "WOLF'

At age 40, Hank Williams Jr. is finally growing up.Okay, so this rowdy, second-generation country star will never stop writing about his two favorite subjects: whiskey chasers and chasing women. But Lone Wolf _ his solid follow-up to last year's platinum Greatest Hits III (his third best-of collection in only seven years) _ shows that "Rockin' Randall Hank" has a few more important things on his mind these days.

In between such traditional honky-tonk fare as Good Friends, Good Whiskey and Good Lovin' and I Mean I Love You, Williams exorcises some personal demons on the defiant title track ("I'm a lone wolf/ I've been chased and I've been bit/ I'm a lone wolf/ they like to shoot at me but they miss") and Man to Man, his most convincing declaration of independence from his famous father's shadow to date.

But he saves his most powerful statements for USA Today, a stirring ballad that lashes out against drug peddlers, po-litical corruption and evangelistic greed but tempers those bleak images with tributes to the freedom of speech and other foundations of American pride. In the end, the song celebrates the resiliency of the American people without resorting to jingoistic cliches.

Lone Wolf also stretches Williams' musical repertoire beyond pedal steel-guitar-driven laments and hell-raising country-rockers. With help from an all-star lineup that includes Billy Joe Walker Jr., Edgar Meyer, John Jarvis, Mark O'Connor, Jo-el Sonnier and Matt Rollings of Lyle Lovett's Large Band, Williams deftly tackles Dixieland on Hot to Trot, Cajun music on Jimmy C. Newman's Big Mamou and even lighthearted swing-jazz on a surprisingly tasteful version of the classic Ain't Nobody's Business.DL:

His adventuresome attitude is best reflected by this album's two hard- rocking centerpieces: the blistering Man to Man and an irreverent, horn- driven version of David Houston's whiny 1966 hit, Almost Persuaded.

Both tracks are propelled by the squealing lead guitar work of Van Halen's Sammy Hagar, whose mere presence on a country album proves that Williams isn't just getting older _ he's getting bolder.

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