RE: Hank III
By Kramer Wetzel from astrofish.net
“Well, I used to think that country
was out of Nashville Tennessee
I’d rather take my things and
Go back to Texasee”
[Trashville or Texasee, depends on the author’s mood, Hank Williams III, BMI/Mike Curb Music, 2002]
It started a few years ago on a lonely afternoon in Austin. We’d all gone down to the Broken Spoke to get some chicken fried steak. I figured it was a trick of some of the neon in the place–the waitress’s hair looked purple. Or pink. She was traditionally attired in a western yoke shirt, jeans, and boots, but her hair, as it turned out, was died a mawkish punk color. The bumper sticker reads “Keep Austin Weird” and she was just doing her part.
That worked. We got to talking about music, and the next thing I know, I’m prowling around music stores, looking for a “Hank Williams the Third” CD, solely based on her recommendation. Finally found it in the Country section of Cheapo disks, an independent store. Next thing you know, I’m trying to convince all my friends that this is the greatest musical revelation to come along in the millennium. The vocal style was that of Hank Williams Senior. The songs themselves had a little bit of an edge. “Edge” is hard to define, but there’s a raw quality, like the pain and woe is real, rather than manufactured.
Soon thereafter, I had a chance to see Hank III for the first time. Amazing show. He was just getting out of rehab, and he appeared a little high-strung. He did his cover of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” from that first record. But live, it’s slightly different. Imagine a speed metal band playing acoustic instruments. Stand up bass, demon fiddle, pedal steel guitar, drummer banging out a high-strung backbeat, Hank 3 himself on an acoustic six-string, wearing a near-to-death straw cowboy hat. He sidles up to the microphone and sounds, for all the world, just like the scratchy tunes vocals on antique recording equipment, lines laid down by his grandfather.
Shelton Hank Williams, nominally called “Hank Three,” is an outlaw. Or, he’s a “neo-classicist” country singer. Putting together some kind of a biographical sketch is a little difficult because there’s the onerous weight of his namesake, his familial lineage, and the fact that he’s basically a punk. A “cow punk,” or, in his terms, “Hellbilly.” Some facts are also clearly shrouded in myth and lore, or, one would have to wonder, maybe publicity hype. Allegedly, Hank 3 started peddling his career as “Hank Williams the Third” in response to a paternity suite.
The first time I saw him live, it was an amazing revelation. I’d like to claim I was the oldest person in the audience, and on a median average, I might have been, but there were certainly a number of people older than myself. Folks have heard, through the ubiquitous country music underground, that Hank 3 is almost a mirror image of his grandfather. Might be the case. The vocal work, both on that first album and that first set live, makes one believe in both reincarnation and genetics.
Under the correct circumstances, though, Hank 3 gets to play a second set. When I heard that second set, I could only think of one kind of taxonomy for his other brand of music: punk. Checking some of the web sites, I found at least one allusion to speed metal, which, in all honesty, might fit–considering how much I don’t know about the sub-genres of metal. Then again, it might not. Punk music born out of the 1980’s sounded a lot like some of that stuff Hank 3 plays in his second set. At one time, he referred to it as “Screaming Devil Rock.” I believe he was about half-serious.
I came for the country music that first time, stayed for the loud stuff, and found that the loud stuff was every bit as good, if not better, than the rather formidable country music. Heavy metal, death metal, speed metal, or my own appellation of punk, doesn’t much matter what you call it. It’s loud, it’s angry, it’s energetic, it uses certain repetitive phrases one would expect–lots of F words–and yet, there’s something underlying it all. Some mystical, lyrical thread forms a basic backbone. That speed-death-heavy-punk-metal thing, there’s a sense that it was put together by musicians. Skilled musicians, not honing their chops but actually quite accomplished in their skill sets. Maybe even having some fun.
In one of his band’s previous incarnations, a member of Slayer worked with Hank 3. The last time I saw them in Austin, “Slayer” had played the night before, and that music was much on the audience’s mind. In the middle of the country set, Hank 3 got up close and personal with the microphone, and in his death-metal screaming voice, he playfully suggested, “Play some SLAYER!” Maybe it wasn’t really a playful voice, but the attitude was that of someone having some fun.
I could only make fragments of some of the metal lyrics, but most of the tunes had a country, down-home sense to them, although the music itself was angry. Some critics, those of us getting older, would claim that’s it’s not really music, just noise. It’s more than that. As near as I’ve been able to determine, having seen him live a number of times now, there’s at least one song that doubles as both a country song and punk song. Same lyrics, slightly different musical emphasis. I’ve been unable to corroborate this fact about the lyrics, but it’s not beyond Hank 3’s formidable reach and talent as a musician.
Not so long ago, on a cold winter night in northeast Texas, I had a chance to see H3 at a club. A Country and Western Club. We got there a little early, paid the cover charge, and looked around the dance floor, the neon, the usual accoutrements of a stereotype cowboy bar in suburbia, and me with my unkempt long curls, I wondered if I’d wandered into a some place I ought not be. Standing around, I got my date a beer, and as show time got closer, the club’s crowd shifted. First it was the rockabilly types, one or two guys with tattoos crawling out from under dark t-shirts, the denim jeans with the 4-inch cuffs, the “Ford Dealership” jackets, and chain-drive wallets. Then the punks started to show up, more tattoos, more piercings, even more clothing that was “distressed” and not distressed in a store-bought way.
On top of the neo-punk, post-post-modernist look, there was an assortment of cowboy hats in various states of disrepair. The crowd looked like a group of people that didn’t belong together. At all. Period. Slicked-up city-cowboys from northeast Texas, punk rock girls, rockabilly boys, and the odd preppy looking kid. “Man, when I saw Hank 3 was playing, I just had to see him!” said one guy, standing in line behind us.
Hank 3 started with the opening from his first album, and it was gratifying to see most of the crowd singing along, or at least mouthing, the lyrics. These are some very dedicated fans. I remember hearing, early in that set, “7 months 39 days…” That song was released on the second official Hank Williams III album, “Lovesick, Broke & Driftin’.”
The first time I noticed any unease with the regulars in that kicker bar was when Hank 3 swung into one of his two songs about the state of country music and his apparent dislike of the current state of affairs along Nashville’s fabled Music Row. He openly sings about his distaste for the way music business is being run. In an aside to the crowd, Hank 3 pointed out that classic rock stations played the classics, whereas most pop-country, hot-country branded stations avoid playing anything from the established masters.
One would have to assume this means members of his own family, as well. Listen to some of these-called popular country stations, and this might very well be true. While this was universally acknowledged as fact by the die-hard Hank 3 crowd, the regulars at that place seemed a little uneasy that someone, especially some kid, was treating them in an unkind fashion. For the briefest moment, there was a feeling like seeing a bull being hit by a 50,000 volt cattle prod, right before the rider signals to open the gate. The creature’s back ripples a little–I kept waiting on the gate to open.
That one winter night, after an hour and a half of country, Hank 3 announced, “The bar owner said we could do three songs, no more, of our other stuff. Just stand still while we do this, okay?” Brawny bouncers in black cowboy hats had one or two altercations that looked like excessively exuberant rockers were getting too excited, but there were no fights. I don’t recall anyone getting forcibly ejected, either.
The hat comes off, the yoke shirt is tossed aside, and in a three-minute break, Hank 3 becomes a rocker. His locks are long and straight, shaved close on the sides, and with that hair pulled back and laced up in a thong, he looks almost as straight as can be. Other times, he’s gone so far as to wear pig-tales, a braid, or just let it flow long, especially for that second set.
The last time I saw Hank 3 in Austin, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I’m too old to be in a club where a few of the patrons have genuine Mohawks.” Put aside the attire and the diversity of the crowd, though. Listen to the music itself. It carves out a niche some place between classical country and hardcore honky-tonk. Plus there’s his “Screaming Devil Rock,” and the only question I haven’t found answered yet, is where is the album called, “This Ain’t Country”? Its existence is a well-documented rumor.
If you get a chance to see him live, go for the country, then, if you’re at least slightly open-minded, stay for the hardcore set. In one, you’ll hear soulful country, done straight from an outlaw’s pure heart. In the next, you’ll hear some damn fine rock and roll, or heavy metal, or Dixiecore, or whatever it’s called, but listen to it. The range, the versatility, the raw talent itself is what counts. How often do you get two full shows for the price of one?
Hank 3’s band is pretty strange, even by my jaded, “I’ve seen it all” standards. Imagine heavy metal, or death metal, or screaming devil rock, or even circa 1982 punk played by a band that consists of a pedal steel guitar, a standup bass, a fiddle, and Hank 3 on electric guitar. “Give me some more volume man,” he says as he switches, “turn it up.”
[original text © Kramer Wetzel for astrofish.net, 2002]