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It's a Family Tradition

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, Outlaw is 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."

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Marty Jones

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