features

Hank Williams III interview

March 2006

 

I wrote this piece for Dazed & Confused magazine three years ago. They still haven't paid me.

The photographer for a highly entertaining couple of days in Texas with Hank and the Damn Band was David Titlow, who has a wealth of great images of the man himself (portrait and live) as well as the weird and wonderful people who make up the Hank III audience. He has very kindly supplied the two images here, and there may be more to come. Thanks, David.

I also wrote up the interview with III - as he's invariably known - for the Telegraph, and that piece is online at this link here

I met Hank III again last year, a very small part of our conversation finding its way into this Guardian piece on the Williams dynasty. And I'm both delighted and unsurprised to report that he's still a-fightin' and a-feudin', with Curb, with the country establishment, with anyone and everyone who tries to keep him in the box they think he should fit into based on his family background. That opposition seems to have come to define him. His new LP, Damn Right, Rebel Proud, probably isn't quite the equal of Straight to Hell to these ears, but it's still a fine piece of work. European dates are being arranged for later in the year - two German festival appearances in August are locked down so far.

 

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A long-haired man wearing a cut-off punk rock t-shirt, sweat raking down his skinny and heavily tattooed arms, is strangling devillishly loud riffs from his electric guitar. To his rear, a drummer is detonating a rapid-fire series of blasts from his twin bass drums, a machine gun volley of percussion rounds that thuds into the bodies of the watching crowd.

Yes, the crowd: middle-aged men in Stetsons and dapper black shirts with metal trim on the breast pockets; teenage girls with elaborate tattoos between their shoulders; a goth in a trenchcoat that scrapes the floor, stereotypically intense; a clique of crepe-shoed rockabilly thirty-somethings, standing proud in individually decorated jackets; teenage kids in black t-shirts, some showing the name of the late Johnny Cash.

The eager, the limber and the most wasted are at the front of the stage, fists punching the air. Behind them a mosh pit of middle-grade ferocity sucks bystanders into its whirlpool maw, all boisterous pushing and shoving. And to the rear, the older, the more contemplative, or the plain confused stand and stare, watching the melee in front and the band on stage beyond. You can almost see them thinking: "So, this is a country show?"

"We got grandmas, rednecks, punk rockers, skinheads, metal kids, from eight to 80 – all kinds," Hank Williams III grins earlier, sat in the lounge at the back of his tour bus. "We got a pretty diverse audience, and a loyal one. You get the staff sayin', 'We've never seen crowd surfin' at a country show!' We got a unique thing, man – bein' different and goin' against the grain is startin' to pay off."

Williams, 33, can be proud of his ability to unite so many disparate tribes, to give them all what they came for, and remain true to the maverick path he's cut between his heritage as the son and grandson of country music royalty, and the single-minded pursuit of music that's true to his upbringing as a punk rock rebel from the land of conflicted contrasts that is the poor white American south. Abused by an uncle, with five years spent on Federal probation and a genuine, heartfelt love of both country's rebel/outlaw side and of the hardcore punk and metal that spoke to him as a teenager, Hank III is a living reflection of the different faces you see in his audience.

"I just wanna be known for our variety, for our rebelliousness, and for finding our own way," he elaborates. "Even though I am kin to the hillbilly Shakespeare of country music and the outlaw of the '70s, '80s and today, I think people in the end know that we've been out there fightin' for our own style and sound."

On stage in Dallas and Houston, on the second and third stops of a tour to promote Williams' third solo album, Straight to Hell, his show takes on a shape that would confuse outsiders but which his growing army of loyal devotees have come to love. For a little over an hour he and the outfit he calls his Damn Band plays country music, complete with a superlative pedal steel guitarist and a fiddle player. For half an hour, the Damn Band up the tempo to play a punky country that Williams has christened Hellbilly. Then Joe Buck reappears with a Fender Precision in place of his acoustic double bass, and Williams straps on an electric guitar. The violin and steel guitar are packed away, replaced by Gary Lyndsey, front man and lead vocalist of Assjack, Williams' death metal band. For the final 45 minutes, it's hardcore all the way, extreme music played by and for people who'd been happy listening to melodic country just moments earlier.

It's his kind of country, though: while the older folks will get some of what they came for (Williams' vocal and physical resemblance to a grandfather he never knew is so keen it is unsettling), anyone who believes country is about conformity or conservatism is in for a fright. Some of Williams' material – Thrown Out the Bar, D Ray White, Country Heroes – is just a natural extension of his grandfather's honky-tonk hillbilly and lonesome introspection, while his father's Southern outlaw boogie infuses the likes of Smoke & Wine. But it is on Crazed Country Rebel ("Overdose of drugs, overdose of sin/I'm gonna live it to the fullest like I'm on ten/I love bein' high, hate bein' low/And I like to drive my truck down a muddy dirt road") and Dick in Dixie ("I'm here to put the dick in Dixie/And the cunt back in country/Cos the kind of country I'm hearin' nowadays/Is a bunch of fuckin' shit to me") that he puts everything all together in a way that is definably his own. So it is understandable that he is angry with his record label for voluntarily excising those songs from a "clean" version of Straight to Hell it manufactured – without Williams' consent – in order to get the record stocked by the dominant and conservative retail chain, Walmart.

 

"I had a two- to four-year battle in court with Curb," Williams explains of the label he has been fighting since first signing to them out of desperation when, as a 20-year-old, he discovered that a one-night stand four years previously had resulted in a baby, and that he was expected to stump up in the region of $40,000 backdated child support. "A year and a half ago I supposedly got 100 per cent control of my music and art. But they've gone behind my back, changed my liner notes, and taken two songs off the record without asking me, all because you basically have some Nazi Klan member up in charge of the music section who decides what's right and what's not. They should be proud to have a record that's been rejected by Walmart! It sucks to see them bend over."

Williams doesn't have to be prodded much to spew bile about Curb. The country label, founded by record business giant and sometime Republican party fundraiser (and, briefly, acting Governor of California) Mike Curb, is home to a plethora of the sort of mainstream Nashville acts Williams' very existence is in opposition to. His history with the label is not happy: the first record he made was an electronically created set of songs with his father and grandfather, and his first two solo releases, 1999's Outlaw Rising and 2002's Lovesick, Broke & Driftin', put the brakes on his rebel side. But it was Curb's refusal to release his metal/Hellbilly album, This Ain't Country, that brought him head-to-head with the label, launching a campaign against them that saw him selling "Fuck Curb" t-shirts on his website.

At the heart of their rowing is the duality in Williams' performance that sustains and maintains that exceptionally broad fan base. Despite his country roots, Hank III grew up as a punk and metal fan, playing drums in various bands, discovering Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys as a teen, and has a part-time gig playing bass in Superjoint Ritual, Pantera singer Phil Anselmo's band. Country is the music he was raised by, but hardcore rock is as vital a part of his musical DNA. He doesn't do both because he thinks it's a good angle, but because it's his own musical truth. Curb seem unable to work out how to market him, despite the fact that he has already done more to bring country to a new, younger audience than anyone else on the label's roster. He's been trying to be what his audience needs him to be for years: yet it's only now, with Straight to Hell (at least, in its uncensored edition), he is finally showing what he is all about.

"I feel a responsibility as far as the outlaw thing," Hank explains. "There's not enough of 'em in country music, and I do feel that's one of our callings. It's in the bloodline to be rebellious. We have a little bit of that redneck thing, and even though I wear the stars and bars [Confederate flag], the only reason I fuckin' wear it is I'm proud of bein' from the South. I'm not proud of what the Klan has done, or all the racism that's come out of there, but I'm from the South, and I'm a rebel, and that's the way it is."

The Dynasty

Hank Williams
17th September 1923 – 1st January 1953
Hiram "Hank" Williams created one of the most important canons of American 20th century music, his style helping define country music but also influencing the emergence of rock'n'roll. Born with an undiagnosed spinal defect, he suffered excruciating back pain throughout his life, and his attempts to dull this with alcohol and drugs hastened his death, aged only 29, in the back of a car en route to a gig. Equally at home with odes to drink-fuelled nights out (Honky Tonkin') or spirituality and remorse (I Saw the Light), Williams prefigured his own death in his songs (I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive) and as his behaviour became more erratic, he found his iconic status as a country hitmaker cut little ice with the staid Nashville establishment.

Randall Hank Williams Jr, aka Bocephus
26th May 1949 –
Hank's son from his marriage to co-singer and sometime manager Audrey Shephard, Hank Jr was nicknamed Bocephus by his dad, after a ventriloquist's dummy popular at the Grand Ole Opry. Audrey turned her child into a one-man Hank Williams tribute act, and in 1975, after a failed suicide attempt and the start of a musical reinvention, working with Southern rock bands, Hank Jr almost died in a climbing accident in Montana, and had to have his entire face completely reconstructed. By the end of the 1970s, songs like Family Tradition, explaining his harder-edged music as a natural consequence of him adhering to his father's attitudinal template, and brash tunes like Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound and All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin' Over Tonight made him a stadium-sized draw. The father of Shelton (Hank III), Holly and Hilary, Hank Jr has released over 80 albums and continues to tour.

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