Just the way it is
By Jon Gilbertson
On a late October afternoon, Hank Williams III is touring the East Coast and feeling poorly – not because of the fondness for John Barleycorn that supposedly afflicts all in his line, but because of the more banal bugs that don’t cure easily over a long stint on the road. He isn’t whining about a head cold, though.
“I chose the hard road as opposed to the easy road a long time ago,” he mutters across the wires. “I got that drive and that’s what keeps me going.”
Like much of what Hank III has said since he stepped directly into his legacy more than a decade ago, those lines require only a little editing to make fine country song refrains. But he’s spent a great deal of time mixing up that legacy with the punk rock and heavy metal he’s loved ever since he was a kid.
“People do realize that I’m into many things besides country,” he says. “People see a realness. That’s what I hear a lot.”
But not every fan shows equal appreciation for each of his facets.
“There’s a certain breed out there that loves Slayer and David Allan Coe,” Williams says. “It might come from the same place, but some of the fans just don’t get it. There’s a bunch of snobs and you’ll never be cool because you’re not punk or country enough for ‘em. Each little group has its thing.”
If Hank Williams III has a thing, then that thing would probably be lifelong defiance. Born Shelton Hank Williams in Nashville in 1972, he didn’t really get to know his father, Hank “Bocephus” Williams Jr., because he wasn’t around. While the two have crossed paths more often in recent years, it should be noted that during our entire interview, he referred to his father only once; as “Hank Junior” at that.
Hank III didn’t really know his musical lineage, either, and was content to smoke weed and rock hard until a crushing and sudden need to make regular child-support payments sent him to the tourist town of Branson, Missouri to earn his keep imitating his grandfather. (The resemblance, vocally and physically, is eerie, and has been commented on so much elsewhere that it need not be dwelled on here.)
“I’ve been fighting in court to get off that label forever,” Williams says. “This goes back to a family name, back to spite. This is people holding us back. There are all these rich-ass motherfuckers who don’t want to let me go, even though they don’t understand me and will not market me.”
It didn’t help that the label’s first use of Hank III was to put his voice together with that of his father and his grandfather on the electronically jiggered Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts.
After that, Hank III has released only three albums of his own: 1999’s Risin’ Outlaw, which he immediately badmouthed as a product of the label’s poorly directed creative control; 2002’s Lovesick, Broke & Driftin’, which he recorded, produced and mixed on his own in two weeks; and this year’s Straight to Hell, which from title on in is as close as the label has gotten to Hank III’s wishes yet.
For Straight to Hell, Hank III again headed up production, though this time with help from bassist Joe Buck and steel guitarist Andy Gibson, longtime friends and members of his band, known as Assjack.
Though billed as a two-disc affair, the second disc is one long meandering track: the first is the real deal. Over 13 cuts, most of which he wrote, Hank III and his crack players make the most of his bad reputation. From the vicious kick of the title track to the hardcore two-step of “Dick in Dixie,” the music stays far away from the neo-Nashville sound.
At least one song, “Country Heroes,” name-checks Hank Sr., Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, among others. “Not Everybody Likes Us” revels in the badge of honor that underground status often confers (and unloads poetic buckshot on Hank Jr. confrere Kid Rock). The aforementioned “Dick in Dixie” refers to popular country music as, simply, “shit.” Williams can’t stand the smell of the stuff and hasn’t been near it for a long while.
“I’ve been disconnected from that for a good five, six years,” he says. “I haven’t even listened to radio or looked at CMT. All the music I listen to is from the road. But back in the day I always had a thing for Dwight Yoakam and how much he takes care of his voice. My favorite Nashville girl singer is Gillian Welch; she has the sound that touches me.”
Yet while Straight to Hell adds Hank III’s love of weed – a love whose month is ever-May – to the more conventional list of C&W vices, it doesn’t stretch out to include the noisy punk rock, Misfits-loving side he displays onstage everywhere. According to Williams, a huge backlog and variety of material exists and is ready to go, and some of it has even been bootlegged (with his blessing and, in the liner notes of Straight to Hell, his thanks).
“All that stuff is live and recorded,” he says. “I’ve been forced to legally stop selling them. I have machines full of music. Some of it’s country. Some of it’s noise. Some of it’s heavy metal. Some of it’s dark Nick Cave stuff. So I’m doing my job, and we’re doing it all DIY. The Hank III family is a dysfunctional family, but aside from the family fucking name, what we’ve done is pretty much self-made.”
For now, though, he is content to hang out with his friends, who include fellow Hank Williams fan Wayne Hancock, Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton and former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo. The last of these used to be in a band called Superjoint Ritual, in which Williams played bass. Now Williams gets his noise on as Arson Anthem, with Hank III on drums, Anselmo on guitar, and Eyehategod singer Mike Williams shouting.
Of course, Hank III remains a stalwart traveler.
“We’re politically incorrect, and if you cross that line you have to do 100 to 200 shows a year,” Williams says. “If you’ve been in the business over 12 years and have only three records in the machine, something doesn’t add up. We are the black sheep among the Christian-right people in the Bible Belt.”
Yet if being a black sheep is suggested by his lineage – Hank Sr., after all, was lionized by institutions like the Grand Ole Opry only after he was safely dead and no longer able to cause trouble – then Hank III wears the dark image less as a burden than as a customary – or even chosen – way of being.
“I feel compelled to prove something out here,” he says. “I definitely feel like I gotta do what I’m doing in music. As far as having a number one song or winning an award or any of that bullshit – no. I do feel like I have to tour a certain amount of days and I do have to write a certain amount of songs every four or five months. And that’s just the way that it is.” VS