The career of Shelton Hank Williams III (aka Hank3) has doubled as a sort of crusade in which he breaks all the rules of country music while somehow managing to honor its traditions at the same time. As he put it back in ’06, “Everybody calls themselves outlaws and all that stuff, but that’s what’s missing in country music. Everything’s so clean and pretty and perfect, and you need a couple of peo
ple in there that aren’t perfect and that don’t sound the best. That’s the way some of the best guys were, man.”
Since the third-generation rebel’s most recent LP, 2010’s aptly titled Rebel Within, he’s gotten off Curb Records and launched his own label, the Megaforce-distributed Hank3 Records (the new moniker to distinguish/a representation of his post-Curb career). He’s also been busy, to say the least, writing and recording FOUR albums at once—Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown, a double LP of refracted country music, the literally unprecedented 3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin and the sludgy Attention Deficit Domination—and they’re all hitting on the very same day, Sept. 6. We don’t believe anyone has done such a thing before—or even thought of doing it, for that matter. It’s too damn crazy.
“It’s been intense, man,” says Hank3 of the undertaking. “Havin’ my own label hasn’t cut into my creativity so far, and that was the main thing I was worried about. Since I did all four records at once, there was a lot to organize and a lot to deal with in general. I do it all on my end as far as the layouts and the art and all that shit, and then send it to ’em. Megaforce has stepped up and helped me create my vision, cuz no one else would be into puttin’ all that product out at once. That was huge for me, man, to approach it like that. I wanted to come out of the gate full-on, and so far, so good.”
You might think this massive project was years in the making, but Hank3 somehow managed to slam together the whole enchilada in just a few months. He parted ways with Curb on Jan. 1 and started writing the songs for this massive project the very next day. The four albums were made simultaneously at the Haunted Ranch, Hank3’s home and studio on the outskirts of Nashville. They were recorded on his trusty Korg D1600—a $400, 10-year-old piece of hardware that liberated the artist from temporal and budgetary constraints while providing his records with a sonic presence that’s not exactly hi-fi nor is it low-fi; let’s just refer to it as face-melt-fi. “I got like five of ’em now, man — I take ’em with me everywhere I go,” he says of the D1600. “I was just glad to finally find a machine I could halfway work. When the energy hits, it needs to be captured; that’s the main reason why I keep it on those little machines.”
He approached the challenge of writing and recording the 60-odd songs in his characteristic way—opting for total immersion. “They were all done at once,” Hank3 explains. “Once I was in that mode, I was stayin’ in that mode as far as pumpin’ it out. A lot of it had to do with how I was feelin’, since I played drums on everything.”
Packaged together, Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown find Hank3 further mutating his trademark hellbilly sound, while the latter LP is heavily seasoned with Cajun accents. Many of the tracks have a spooky vibe, as if the music was being performed by a crew of shit-kicking zombies. In truth, the players are all fully alive: Andy Gibson on steel guitar and banjo (he also did some of the engineering), David McElfresh on fiddle and mandolin, Zach Shedd on standup bass, Daniel Mason on banjo, super-picker Johnny Hiland on guitar, Billy Contreras on fiddle, Rory Hoffman on accordion and Hank3 on everything else.
Some special guests are also sittin’ in here and there. None other than Tom Waits shows up on the title track to Ghost to a Ghost and Guttertown’s eerie “Fadin Moon,” while Alan King of Hellstomper, Les Claypool of Primus fame, Dave Sherman and Troy Medlin also join the party. And making his recording debut is Trooper, one of Hank3’s canine family members; the Doberman/black-and-tan hound mix lends his doggie vocals to “Troopers Hollar” and “Troopers Chaos.” (As you may have noticed, there are no apostrophes in Hank3’s world.)
“I don’t think a lot of the country record is gonna be as familiar to my fans,” he reckons. “Some of it’s gonna be harder for them to swallow because it’s just me bein’ me a little more. Yeah, there is a few country songs on there, but there is also quite a few songs that’s not necessarily country. The Guttertown record is paintin’ a picture in ambience and lettin’ all those movie people know that, yeah, I can create my own sounds and do all that stuff, too—keep me in mind. I make those kinda ambient sounds for the kids who are ridin’ trains and the kids who are takin’ mushrooms. I’m takin’ them through different moods, the happy, the sad, the weird—I’m expandin’ their minds in a country Pink Floyd kinda way. So a lot of that is basically for the tripping kids.”
According to Hank3, the most countrified songs from this batch are “Day by Day” and “Guttertown” while the crossover tune is “Troopers Hollar,” which brings together his country and metal sides. “as far as the Cajun stuff,” he adds, “I would say ‘Gutterstomp’ is gonna be pretty legendary for the hobos of today. And of course, there’s ‘Fadin Moon’ with Waits. I finally got to meet him in person and go out to his place. We got to hang out and break the ice a little bit. Then I sent him a couple of songs and he felt real comfortable with the ‘Fadin Moon’ song and that was that.”
Attention Deficit Domination and Cattle Callin explore the two extremes of metal. Hank3 plays practically everything on both.
Attention Deficit Domination is Hank3’s first foray into sludge, making it a radical shift in mood and tempo from the speed metal he’s been grinding out in his Assjack mode. “That’s gonna be a little different for the live fans who have been used to seein’ Assjack for the last 10 years,” he says. “Assjack was almost fast hardcore, and ADD is slow, Melvins, sleep-oriented doom rock. So it’s gonna be a lot different to see and feel compared to what most people are used to seein’ me do live. I been a fan of it for years; it’s just somethin’ else I needed to do. The record is dedicated to Layne Staley, and some of his voicings are on it.” The linchpin tracks here, says Hank3, are “Bend” the nearly nine-minute “Livin Beyond Doom.”
On Cattle Callin, Hank3 has concocted a hybrid subgenre he calls “cattle core,” on which his driving, speed-metal-derived playing is juxtaposed with the sounds of auctioneers doing their traditional raps, with Hank3 sometimes laying his own high-register vocal treatments over the top. For a really extreme contrast, he brought in Mason to put some bluegrass banjo pickin’ on “Cattle Callin Lonesome Blues.”
Hank3 says the Cattle Callin record “just kinda came out of the blue. I had to have somethin’ fun to do aside from bein’ so serious on the country records and stuff. That one was like, OK, this is getting’ to be more and more fun—I’m gonna keep it rollin’. What the hell, here’s a whole new thing. Hip-hop has worked with auctioneers, and bluegrass has worked with auctioneers, but I don’t think the metal world has ever seen the two. It’s always been about the cookie monster vocals with the speed, and this just seemed like a really natural fit for it.”
His biggest challenge was trying to convince the auctioneers to do the record. “I tried to get ’em to see my vision and to let ’em know, ‘I swear to God I’m not makin’ fun of y’all. I was raised on a farm, I been around livestock as a kid. There’s not gonna be any cussin’ on this record’—and all these things for some of these old-school guys I had to work with. I paid ’em all a certain fee up front and got ’em to sign off. I told them I can guarantee them some exposure, and my big hook is that this is a new way to inspire young auctioneers. That’s the main concept of the record. It’s gonna be the hardest one to reproduce live.” Hank3’s go-to cuts on Cattle Callin are “Branded” featuring auctioneer Mitch Jordan and “Black Cow” featuring the legendary Tim Dowler.
Because he’s been totally preoccupied with the project throughout the first half of 2011, all the money has been going out and none has been coming in. So how the hell can he afford to rent a bus, take 12 people out on the road this fall and pay them all? “The bank is broke,” Hank3 admits with typical honesty. “That’s why I save all these pedals and guitars—I put ’em on eBay to keep it goin’. I haven’t had a CD on my merch table for 14 years, so that in itself will be huge for me. So I think I’ll break even. It’s been intense, man, but that’s just what I do. I been off the road for a while, and I’m lookin’ at two years of bein’ full-on dedicated to goin’ out there and doin’ what we do. That’s another reason why I wanted to get all four out of the way, so I could just focus back on the touring again.”
Looking back on his latest achievement and down the road at the same time, Hank3 philosophizes, “The way I approach records nowadays is it could be my very last one. So that’s the big inspiration for it, and just gettin’ by each day and tryin’ to make it through another tour—that’s the deal. I’m not tryin’ to get no big payoff or anything. Will I ever be able to do this again in my career? Probably not. This’ll be the only time I’ll be able to pop out that much energy at once. But all in all, it’s just kinda bein’ like the Melvins or the Reverend Horton Heat. I’m a bar band, that’s what I am, so I’ll be beatin’ down the road as long as we can, doin’ the show and sayin’ hello, man.”