It's a Family Tradition

Hank Williams III hopes to do it his way, with or without Nashville's help.

Williams continued his musical growth in a decidedly non-country vein, playing bass, drums and guitar in a number of Nashville punk bands, including Bed Wetter and Buzzkill. Hoping these acts would click with a label, Williams asked his father's longtime manager, Merle Kilgore, to shop a tape to a short list of rock producers. "It was awful stuff. You ought to hear it. All yellin' and screamin'. You couldn't make a word out if it," says Kilgore, who admits punk rock is not his cup of tea. Kilgore passed one tape on to Burt Stein, a former manager for Nirvana, "and he listened to it and said, 'Tell him that's not even good slam-dance music. And tell him that he's missing a golden opportunity with a name like Hank Williams III.'" At that point, Kilgore says, "Hank decided he was gonna go country."

Williams says the story is partially correct, but the real reason he adopted his ancestors' sound four years ago was "a one-night stand that waited three years to tell me I had a son and owed $24,000 dollars in back child support. What are you gonna do then when you're making $50 a night doing punk rock? I had to act like a businessman for a change. I figured, okay, it's time to quit having as much fun as I'm having and time to get into this business and see what I can do.

"You can't be a deadbeat dad nowadays," he adds. "They'll throw you under the jail. They served me papers when I was on stage. That goes to show you the way people are in this town -- greedy, mean, vulgar. They're all about nothing but trying to get money."

He's so lonesome he could cry: Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III.
He's so lonesome he could cry: Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III.

After forming a band of Nashville allies and doing small shows in the area, Williams made the totally country move of gigging in Branson, Missouri, where he knocked out two Hank Sr. tribute shows each day opening for Mel Tillis. On the strength of these performances and his family name, his now-deceased manager landed him a deal with Curb Records. In hindsight, Williams admits that inking the deal wasn't a smart move, but he says his financial woes may have clouded his thinking. Risin' Outlaw is the bitter fruit of that arrangement, and it's understandable why Williams, the alterna-country kid, is unhappy with it. In the disc's opener, "I Don't Know," the singer hints at robbing banks and dreams of getting in Shania Twain's pants, but the tune's mainstream, commercial sound makes realization of such boasts seem mighty unlikely. "You're the Reason" is a nice honky-tonker that leans into hard country terrain, while "If the Shoe Fits" is a Hank III original that will likely please TNN folks but not the alt-country crowd. The bulk of the disc falls into a similar, overly accessible stylistic trap. Williams does, however, display good taste in selecting songs to cover: Johnny Cash ("Cocaine Blues") and the exceptional Buddy Miller ("Lonesome for You") are represented on Outlaw. Wayne "The Train" Hancock, who's become a close friend of Williams's, gets major props in the disc's liner notes, and his songs "87 Southbound," "Thunderstorms & Neon Signs," and "Why Don't You Leave Me Alone" are treated faithfully, almost to a fault, replicating the Train's vocal subtleties yelp for yelp. "He's the only kid I know with more Hank Williams in him than me," Williams says of Hancock.

The disc's grittier highlights seem buried in the package and leap out as odd flashes of what the disc might have been had Williams had his say. During these moments, Risin' fulfills the bold promise inherent in the name running down its spine. "On My Own" is a spooky lament in the "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" vein, a bleeding moaner in which the drunken singer stumbles in the door each night to an empty house. The disc's final two cuts reveal even greater grit and gristle. "Why Don't You Leave Me Alone" is a live take of Hancock's tune, a five-minute sweat-soaked roadhouse gem that will satisfy retro-country fans. "Blue Devil" is a home recording that walks the trail of Hank Sr. and shivers with at least some of the ghostly power of Williams's grandpop.

"Those are the only songs I had complete control over," Williams says of his record's better parts. "You gotta understand, these kiss-ass son-of-a-bitches, they don't go in and record and have it done in four weeks. They piece it together over a year and a half, and they make everything so uncool. Hell, they had me do 120 vocal takes of one song. I tell the audience at our shows, 'What you're seeing now is not what's on the record, and if you enjoy what you're hearing, savor it.' We're still trying to find the people to preserve this sound. But I don't care," he says. "I write a song for me and I sing a song for me -- no one else."

Chuck Howard, who produced Risin' Outlaw, doesn't agree with Williams's assessment. "There's nothing really pop country about the album at all," he says. "It's almost punk country to me." Granted, that may be a revealing comment about what Nashville considers raw, but Howard offers a solid defense for the P rating. "Everyone in Nashville is so neutered right now," he says. "There's nobody in country music taking a male stance. If I hear another nice male singer come along, I'll die. It's some of the worst mush I've ever heard. What happened to people that actually wanted to go out and drink? But Hank's record is a drinking and drug album," he says, "and it's so anti-establishment, and that's a good part of what Hank is all about."

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