Hank III: Straight from the Darkness
We all like metal and whiskey/ Livin’ hard and chasin’ down hell/ We’ll never give up on what we have/ Because the darkness gives us our thrills – Hank III “3 Shades of Black” (listen to it here)
“If you’re from where I’m from, here in the Bible Belt, it’s probably just the topics I talk about,” Williams illuminates in his gruff voice, on the phone from his Nashville area home. “Which would be the downer side of things, whether its drug or alcohol related, or religious related, some of those darker topics put me outside of the box. It’s slowly kind of changing, but you get classified kind of, written off I guess. Kind of hard to explain, but people in a bigger city, Chicago or something like that, if you’re that way that would hardly be any kind of difference to them. Drugs, so what? Religion, so what? Some people in the big city are so fucking go, go, go; they don’t sweat the small stuff. Here in the South, because the times moving slower, I guess at a slower pace, people have more time to get picky with others.”
I was curious if he felt that the dominant conservative culture had also in some way inspired some artists to react against similar issues.
“I mean a lot of the people that I know in the music business, it’s kind of strange, but most of the people that are rebellious in the business are in the darker things. Most of the un-rebellious people in the business are into the lighter side of things,” says Williams. “I guess [that culture] has been shoved down a lot of people’s throats down here. [The South] will always have the breed of the hell raiser or rebel or whatever that is. There are definitely a lot of them out there.”
“I was trying to get a good crossover song in there, because a few kids in black I know will be buying [the record] and I wanted to make sure they were being taken care of. Because I was just let down with [Damn Right] itself, that’s what I was trying to do. I have to be aware that legally I can’t make the records I want to make. Weird as it sounds, I have to keep it country. I can’t mix the two,” says Williams. “Officially if I mixed the two, like the way Mike Patton or The Melvins do it, I would be in the courtroom. But in fourteen more months that will all go away and I can be what I want. So, I’m doing my time. After eleven or twelve years, it will finally be done.”
Referring to the fourteen months left on his Curb contract, signed out of financial necessity over a decade ago when he had to make child support payments, Williams has been locked in a long-running and well-documented battle with the label. If you don’t know much about Curb, I suggest going to their website and glancing at the Artists Page. It’s telling. Amongst the sea of country kids who look freshly packaged from the CMT assembly line, amongst Leann Rimes, Tim McGraw and collections with titles like Ultimate Songs of Faith and Inspiration, is Hank III, cigarette hanging out from his mouth, scrunched somewhere between a grimace and a grin. Damn Right is yet another skirmish. The parental advisory sticker and release on Curb subsidiary label Sidewalk are, according to Williams, “Curb’s way of not standing behind me. It’s like how the last record was on Bruc Records, this one is on Sidewalk. That’s just their way of not supporting me or not being proud of what I do. That’s just their way of not saying, ‘Yes, we are Curb Records and we stand behind this guy and are not ashamed to work with him.'”
“I think Straight to Hell  was a better record than this one. It was a lot smoother; a lot better tricks are going on. Here, the creativity was not going on, I didn’t have the right guys working with me on this one. That’s kind of the summation of how I’m feeling about it.”
So, what do you mean about “the right guys”?
“Not the musicians. It’s the people in the behind the scenes process of it that were not quite there. For a prime example, you don’t fucking start coming off drugs when you’re going to start working with me; that’s nothing but problems. You’re setting yourself up for a disaster. Other personal issues that are fucking with them, they bring that with them into our session and it just turns into a pissing match,” says Williams. “Like I’m going to ask you to make an effect [he demonstrates] and you’re going to take 45-minutes to make that effect. Riiiight. It’s called Pro Tools, you’re supposed to be a wizard at it, not fucking retarded and slow and just pissing me off. If you’re not going to work with me, just cancel the day. Don’t make me sit here for five fucking hours to get two fucking delays out of you. That’s a little bit of the insight into the behind the scenes tediousness of being in a room with a guy who’s not on the same page with you day after day, trying to have a pissing match with you. I mean, that’s pretty much what happened on the whole record. Not the players, but the other folks who have to make it go down. It can get to you. Sometimes it’s fun and laid back and sometimes it’s a grind and just a bummer, because you’re trying to get creative, not have your creativity blocked. That’s a bit of a buzzkill when that happens.”
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In our tabloid, celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s little surprise that Williams’ personal turmoil, famous bloodline and self-professed hard-drinking, hard-druggin’ lifestyle hog most of the media attention. Everyone loves an outlaw, or loves to hate them. But Williams also possesses a natural flair for unapologetically raw, gratifyingly unruly and rowdy-as-hell songwriting. His tunes will swim through your whiskey-addled head for hours, spitting up blood and teeth from bar fights and sometimes reeking with the emotional mess of waking up in the gutter. Celebrations of drinking, fighting, fucking, flipping off the pious and shoving a metaphorical broken bottle in Nashville’s self-righteous face abound, all delivered with a mischievous grin. Williams often drops the names of other country musicians he respects, from Waylon Jennings to Johnny PayCheck to George Jones, in his songs. Hank III’s music is true to that spirit, even with the metal touches, weird experimentation and all, especially compared to most of what’s currently coming off Music Row. It speaks to an era where country at its best wasn’t afraid to look heartache and the roughness of working class life square in the face.
“It’s a contrived controlled…” he continues, gathering up bile. “I’ll give you a perfect fucking example – Hootie and the Blowfish. All of a sudden they get into country music, turn in a record. ‘Oh, that’s too country-sounding, we’ll make it better so you’ll have a number one hit song [taking on the voice of a pompous record exec].’ And what happens? They go, ‘Okay, y’all do your thing’ and turn in the record the way [the label says] it’s supposed to be made and get a number one hit song. If you play their game, you will be taken care of. If you talk shit and don’t, you’re an outcast and good luck on making it. But that’s what all the true blue musicians out there do. They’re unheard of and independent. That’s just the way it is.”
“At Hank Williams’ 50th anniversary [of his death] at the Grand Ole Opry [in 2003] they were paying homage to him. It was a TV appearance [and] the first time I mentioned it, I said, ‘Folks, don’t you think it’s about time to have Hank Williams reinstated back into the Opry?’ I got a big round of applause and all that. So, I started the movement going there,” says Williams. “I got in touch with a couple presidents at the Opry, and was trying to be businesslike and respectful and in return I get a bunch of attitude saying, ‘Oh we’ll never reinstate a dead guy. That’s absurd,’ and acting like he’s a nobody. And I was growing up around this town having to watch Hank Williams impersonators and stuff like that. Seeing stuff like that just starts to piss you off, [and] I watched them exploit him through the years and not give him the respect that they need to.”
There is an online petition calling for reinstatement. Williams says, “Honestly, that’s all [the public] can do. Just have awareness. All I can do is call them out and bust their balls. All I could be like is, ‘I’ll just let you hear what the public has to say about it.’ That is where it’s at right now. One day they might change their tune, but for now we’re just calling them out and letting them know it could be handled better. We’re talking about the first guy inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the little Gaylord secret society down in Nashville is too good for him? That just doesn’t make sense. All they got to do is just step up. It ain’t that hard to go, ‘Okay, we’ll do the right thing.’ Simple as that.”
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Williams seems to walk in a decisive arena of right and wrong, with a strong sense of justice and a deep appreciation for those he sees as kindred spirits. He dedicates the ten-minute song “P.F.F.” (“Punch Fight Fuck”) to GG Allin. Williams says, “It just seemed natural to want to dedicate a song to him.” He cited Allin’s similarly diverse group of musical interests (“GG was also into the country music and hard rock and heavy metal and that’s another reason I’m full on about GG”) and his own tour with the Murder Junkies and getting to know GG’s brother, Merle Allin, as reasons for the dedication. But, he’s also moved by the hobo kids who have embraced his music.
There is a certain beauty in saying “fuck society,” and it’s an intrinsic part of our collective American psyche. We all secretly want to “light out for the territories” like Huck Finn, or at least tell Bill Lumbergh we aren’t going to come in on Saturday. Williams taps into that desire to stick a huge middle finger in our boss’ face. The obstinate darkness that clangs in his music, whether it’s shredding the stage with Assjack, breaking hearts with honky tonk or busting out the hellbilly, is the unifying thread in his seemingly disparate interests and influences.
“I guess we’re breaking some boundaries,” he says of his diverse audience. “I would say for all of the different styles of people that come together, most of the time it’s pretty amazing how good everybody watches out for everybody else’s back. Once in awhile we see bad shit go down, and we try to end that as soon as possible, but everybody gets along pretty damn good for the 18-to-80 year old crowd that gets in there. It took us awhile to get the respect of the black t-shirts and I guess it gave us that forever kind of youth feeling. I guess if we’re getting a little acceptance from the rock community, then we are getting something that none of the other country artists will ever have coming to their shows. It’s an interesting mix. Sometimes in the bigger cities we get more of the mixed audience, but in the smaller towns, such as Lubbock, Texas, we’re working hard just to get the diversity out there. It’s definitely an interesting audience, a loyal audience, that’s been there for us for a long time.”
Williams also wanted to make sure that his fans know, “The very last tour we were supposed to do, I had an internal person not listen to me and book a tour, and then we had a bunch of pissed off fans that had bought tickets. I would definitely like to apologize to those folks and let them know someone was not doing their job, pulled the trigger when they weren’t supposed to and we’ll make it up the fans someway, somehow. For anybody who got a ticket, we’re definitely sorry about not showing up.”
The “Jekyll and Hyde” show will be hitting the road in the near future, as Williams assured me, “Assjack is rehearsing.” Meanwhile, Williams is counting down the days until he’s free of Curb.
“Just to have the freedom to work, to put everything out there we’ve been working on and not have to worry about, ‘Okay this person doesn’t like that, so I got to have their lawyer talk to my lawyer about singing with this dude, or something.’ I just won’t have to worry about being a prisoner, that’s the easiest way to put it. Little things, they just hold you back. I just hope to have a good enough team to put it all out there – the rock stuff, the country stuff, the weird stuff. You know, just get our little foundation and tour until I can’t tour no more; keep doing what we’ve been doing for a long time. That’s the main goal, the longevity. I’m hoping to keep doing both sides until I’m 50, if I can make it that long. I’ll be alright. I feel good about it. We’ll have to see. Time will tell on that one.”
Check out a rare acoustic jam with Hank III and Daniel Mason on banjo, from a recent Westwood One Radio Network session.
Live show downloads available here.
Hank Williams III – Long Hauls and Close Calls – 40 Watt 10/20/06
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