It's a Family Tradition

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

As a fledgling country musician, Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, is in an unenviable crossfire of high expectations that make Jesus's son-of-God standing seem almost cushy. After all, Williams's grandfather, the legendary Hank Williams Sr., virtually created the country-and-Western genre and cemented its place in the archives of American music. And while his way-too-short career spanned just under a handful of years, it spawned countless songs that continue to define the genre. His drug- and dope-addled death in the back of a rolling Cadillac on New Year's Eve, 1953, at the age of only 29, still brings tears to the eyes of country fans. His son, Hank "Bocephus" Williams Jr., later took up the family mantle, becoming one of country music's biggest draws and revered good-ol'-boy personalities. While he may not have matched his dad for timeless musical output, he's surely matched him for who-gives-a-damn moxie and hell-raising.

Together, the two leave Hank III with impossible shoes to fill. Adding to this pressure is the fact that Hank III is the spitting image of his grandfather, with a tad more outlaw flair: a stray-cat-thin 27-year-old in T-shirt, duct-taped cowboy boots and clenched fists who broods from beneath a cowboy crown. Unfortunately, an initial spin of Risin' Outlaw, Williams's debut on Curb Records, makes this exciting first impression seem as hollow as the cheeks on Hank Sr.'s face. Instead of raw-boned country seething with anger and ache, Outlawis for the most part user-friendly twang. Worse, its risk-free feel makes Williams -- a former punk musician -- seem more like a man likely to go crazy 'bout a Ford truck than overthrow the Nashville guard his elders wrestled.

But when the 27-year-old Williams discusses his record, it's clear that some of this rebel stuff is legit. For starters, he's his own album's biggest critic, and he pulls no punches when discussing what he considers to be the sorry state of Nashville country. "That record is way too slick," Williams says in a clear, twanged tenor. "What happened was, I got a pop producer who wanted to do it his way, and no matter how much fighting and screaming I did, that's all I could come up with. It really bothers me, because now it's getting pretty good reviews, and it's like, golly, if they think that's country, if I ever do something I love, it'll probably get one star or something. See, this record is a poor try for what they could have had, and yet they're all saying this album is so different, blah blah blah. They're all just lost. But if putting out a shitty album is what I gotta do, well, it's only one. My dad did 69 of them."

Such comments make it clear that Williams and his father are not close, and that he's not afraid to say what's on his mind in conversation or song. "We have this one song, 'I'm Here to Put the Dick in Dixie and the Cunt in Country.' It's one I wrote," Williams says with pride. "One of the lines in it is: 'We're losing all the outlaws that had to stand their ground/And they're being replaced by kids in this manufactured town/They don't have no idea about sorrow and woe/'Cause they're all too busy kissin' ass on Music Row.' Our 'fuck Nashville' songs are the highlight of our shows," he adds.

Long before he was developing such sentiments, Hank III was the occasional pride and joy of Music City, where he made appearances alongside his father. But Williams says the warm-and-fuzzy image was a facade. Hank Jr. divorced Williams's mother when Williams was three years old, and father and son spent limited time together while Williams was a child growing up in Nashville. When he entered his teens, the visits became even less frequent, and the rift between Jr. and III deepened -- in part because Jr. offered little financial support for his former family. According to Williams, his mother works a minimum-wage job today and is recovering from hernia surgery without the support of medical insurance. "He's always been a little tight -- I'll put it that way," Williams says of his father. "The biggest thing he could do for me right now is to let us open up one or two shows for him. And help us out with a bus."

Williams says many Nashville music types have a similarly frosty relationship with Bocephus, whose redneck persona continues to furrow the brows of Music City stalwarts while endearing him to his rowdy fans. (Hank Jr.'s new disc includes a pair of politically correct tunes titled "Naked Women and Beer" and "I'd Sure Like to Knock the Hell Out of You.") "There's a lot of people that Hank Jr. told to kiss his ass, and a lot of these people are now running their own labels," Williams says. "It was like the first time I wanted to go on the Grand Ol' Opry. The guy there told my manager, 'Oh, I don't know. I don't like his daddy.' And my manager said, 'Well shoot, Shelton don't like his daddy, either.' And the guy says, 'Well, maybe I might get this boy up here.' And sure enough, that's what got me up there."

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."

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."

Howard admits the disc may be cleaner than Williams wanted. But he says Williams's frustrations may be a factor of his band not being ready for the studio and his failure to understand why the suits in Nashville call it the music industry. "When an artist comes in and says, 'I want to do my record, and I want it gritty like Wayne Hancock,' I go, 'Okay, great. But look, dude, I'm sorry, but these people at the label put up this money to do all this, and you can't say now that you want to do a record that's gonna sell only 20,000 copies.' At some point, there has to be some economics. But Hank III," he adds, "he loves controversy and all that anti-establishment brouhaha that makes his life and songs click." Kilgore agrees. "Hank gets on stage and tells everybody not to buy his record because he doesn't like it," Kilgore says with a belly laugh. "He's crazy. But he's got a lot of talent, and he's just as nice as he can be. He'll go places if he listens to the right people."

That scenario is unlikely as long as Williams keeps company with Hancock, who has made a habit of voicing his "let's take back our country" anti-Nashville leanings. "There are guys that are like me -- - entertainers -- that pound the pavement for little or no money," Hancock says. "Then there's guys -- businessmen -- that won't play unless they get paid a certain amount. Well, Nashville is run by businessmen, and Hank is an entertainer. And he's feeling like he's roped in, and he's afraid if he leaves there that he'll fall flat. But I'm telling you, he's damn good, and if he leaves Nashville, he's gonna go places." Hancock says he bears some responsibility for Williams's speaking so candidly about his frustrations, as he encouraged Williams to do so. "But I forgot one thing," Hancock says. "I've got three albums out and a reputation. He doesn't -- he's starting out. But he's the coolest guy I've ever met," Hancock adds. "Sure, he's young and made some mistakes, but ain't we all? But he's in it for the music, and God bless him."

Williams will be venting his frustrations on a short swing through the U.S. fronting a new combo that draws from both extremes of his musical experience. The lineup includes stand-up steel player Jim Murphy (a former player with Johnny Paycheck and Hank Snow), fiddler Donnie Herrin (of BR-549) and newcomer Duane Dennison, former lead guitarist for the Jesus Lizard. It's a cross-cultural outfit, just the kind of band that'll never load up a CD if Nashville has its way with Hank III. Not that Williams is holding out hope of ever finding a label that understands him. "All I can do now is hope to be dropped one day by my label," III says, "and I'm doing everything I can to get out of that contract. See, I'm not here to be no happy-go-lucky pop-country guy. I'm here to be lovesick, broke and drifting, writing heartache songs and singing about pain and misery and depression, with a few good times here and there. That's what I'm into -- the dark things, whether it's a song about two girls drowning or selling your soul to the devil.

"And I don't know anymore what Nashville people think," he adds, "and I don't even fret over it. I live day to day, basically selling everything I got or doing what I can to keep this thing going on. I can't really change Nashville. Everybody's done their little rebellious thing, from Steve Earle to Dwight Yoakam to Lyle Lovett -- whoever. You can't change it. I'm just gonna keep doing what I do, and hopefully not make too many people mad."

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