Hank Williams III goes straight to hell

Jeffrey B. Remz, March 2006

Hank Williams III not only shares his father's and grandfather's name, but he also seems to be a chip off the old block when it comes to blazing his own trail.

Shelton, as the youngest of the Hanks is also known, certainly has his methodology. His songs can be steeped in traditional country as that of his grandfather (for the first time he even covers one of his songs on his new two-CD release, "Straight to Hell"), but he also has been known to go the speed metal root as a bassist with the late Superjoint Ritual and on his own, playing with Assjack and even mixing the two genres within the same performance.

Drinking, smoking weed and the devil are part of the landscape of many Hank III songs, and, matter of fact, his life as well.

And when it comes to lyrics, well there's a reason why "Straight to Hell" is being released in two versions, one clean and one that prudent folks wouldn't care for.

But after 10 years with Curb, the heavily tattooed Hank III only has 3 solo albums to show for his efforts - 1998's "Risin' Outlaw," 2002's "Lovesick Broke & Driftin'" and "Straight to Hell." In 1996, Hank III joined his father and grandfather through the wonders of modern technology to record "Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts."

"Argh, I guess it's because we are the black sheep of Nashville for one and BRUC/Curb Records just doesn't believe in us," says Williams via cell phone from Houston explaining the lack of more music.

Unsurprisingly given the past acrimony between Williams, 33, and Curb, the latest diatribes are almost de rigueur.

"They act like I'm going to live for 150 years," says Williams. "They're missing out, man. That's all I can say. I'm doing my job, and they're not doing theirs. At least we got it out there finally, and I already got a whole 'nother record ready for whenever the next time comes."

"If you look at Hank Jr.'s career, in 10 years, he had out over 12 records (Hank Jr. has been on Curb for a good chunk of his career). He's got out 87 records right now. I've been dealing with these guys for over 10 years and put out 3. It just goes to show they're not very good business people. They don't know how to market me...I'm doing my time at the jail. Hopefully, we'll be free here soon, man, and work with someone that actually gives a damn about us."

Curb's Vice of President of Publicity and Media Relations Liz Cavanaugh says, "There were a lot of factors on both sides that delayed the release of the product, but ultimately we feel it was worth it, and ultimately we have a product that everybody is a proud of and ultimately will push Hank III's career to the next level."

On the one hand, Williams seems exasperated with Curb. On the other, he seems to want a more amicable relationship.

"Mainly I was fighting them in court to a) get away from them and then realized that okay I will try one more time. Because they can keep me in court the next 10 years if they wanted to. At least I got 100 percent control of the art though they scratched out 'F--k the CMAs' and 'F-- the Opry' (on the CD jacket)."

William says he acceded to Curb's request for a clean record and the one he really wanted, which contains several songs that Wal-Mart would have doubtlessly refused to stock.

The clean version removed two songs ("Dick in Dixie" and "Crazed Country Rebel") and also contains bleeps of problematic language.

Williams criticized the decision to make changes for Wal-Mart, which he thought would not sell many copies of his music anyway.

"They sell 'South Park,' which messes with racism, homosexuality, politics, religion...'South Park' pushes the envelope way further than we do, and they sell it there."

Cavanaugh says Curb works with "a lot of different vendors. We try to get our music to the largest amount of consumers as possible. We have to work within the guidelines and parameters they set for us sometimes."

Instead of creating a release problem, Williams says, "you should be honored that Wal-Mart doesn't want to carry this record."

"I've always been against censorship...For people in America to be upset over cuss words is the biggest crock of bullshit ever. You need to wake up. Things are getting darker. They ain't going to get no better. Cussing is a way of life, and it's just the way it is man."

Williams did something else unusual in recording the album. He did it on a $500 machine. "That's pretty unheard of on a major label on Music Row," he says.

"We went as do it yourself as much as possible...You don't have to spend $250,000 and then owe your record company the rest of your life to make a record. That was a big stamp that we were trying to make clear on this one."

"None of us went to school for mixing, and we live in bars and get our ears blasted every night. We did a pretty good on turning the knobs and getting some decent sounds."

Williams' sound has changed over the years. On his debut, "Risin' Outlaw," his vocals were smoother and cleaner sounding. "Straight to Hell" contains much more of a throaty vocal style, while still being mainly traditional country.

"It's going through a lot of changes, but on the record, the vocals are a little more raspy...Little bit more attitude on this record. Got to use some real good players - my band, Andy Gibson, Joe Buck, and then we got to use of some of the super pickers - Johnny Hiland, Randy Kohrs...Donnie Herron from BR549...I would just say that there is a certain thinness to it a little bit, compared to if you put on a Tim McGraw record. Our record is going to be a little...more raw sounding."

"It sounds a good different from the second one because the second one was done on analog tape, done in a real studio and (with) a real producer. Just listen to the bass as far as slap of the standup basis for instance...It's tic tacking the way it's supposed to. On the second record, it's more compressed. The tic tac is not really there."

The tic tac sound recalls that made famous by Johnny Cash.

"Curb did pretty close - they still f----d with the record, went behind my back in three different ways and changed things without permission. They breached their contract, and two days ago before I came to Houston, I went to the record company and said 'who f----n did this? I want to know...You're slapping me in the face, and this is a big deal'."

"It's a lot better, but I still cannot be behind the record...On the second pressing, hopefully it'll be the record I turned in."

Williams lamented the failure to include a recording with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons because of failure apparently to get appropriate permission. Williams faulted Curb.

"You're going to overlook Billy Gibbons?" Williams asks, referring to getting permission.

"I told everybody nine months ago, you better make sure this is cleared," he says.

Cavanaugh declined comment.

Back to the music itself.

How many country albums coming out of Nashville start with the lines "Satan is real" and then hear a chortle of laughter from someone who sounds like he might be the devil incarnate before launching into more of Williams' hellbilly sound, singing "I may be going straight to hell/so you better get me one more round."

Williams included the Satan passage from the Louvin Brothers song because his first show for a country artist was opening for Charlie Louvin.

On most of the album, Williams goes for a much more traditional sound and country themes of drinking and depression.

In "Low Down," Williams sings,
"Driftin' 'round 'bout half past four /With the blues on my back /And a bottle on the floor//Drinkin' until I think I'm gonna fall down/'Cause my sweet little baby had to kick me lowdown"

What is real different is the second CD - 42-minutes of ambient noises amidst songs from the likes of Hank Sr. ("I'll Never Be Ashamed of You," the first Hank Sr. song Hank III ever released), Wayne Hancock and others. The disc contains sounds including a street preacher, horses, pigs and a train.

Despite the decidedly non-traditional nature of the second CD, Williams indicates that Curb was fine with what they received.

"Basically, they said, can you make a clean record? Yes. And you'll make a dirty record? - yes. And you'll give us two songs that are for the radio - well yes I will give you two songs that I think are definitely safe enough for radio...That was the whole agreement right there."

"I just turned it in and said, 'here you go'. They said great. They loved it. Everything was on schedule." That was until Wal-Mart nixed it, according to Williams.

"It's more stripped down," says Williams. "It's a lot of just me and the tape recorder and my guitar on some of it."

"It's a little more old school, a little more leaning on the Hank Williams vibe. That's just what it is to a point. To some folks, it'll sound more like the original Hank Williams, but we do a Wayne the Train song on (it). We do 'Up in Smoke,' Cheech & Chong."

"It's a late night kind of record. It's more for coming down or if you need to calm down. The second CD is not the kind of CD that's just going to get you in a rip roaring partying mood."

Why record a song of Hank Sr. when Hank III clearly seems hell bent on going his own way?

"When I started all the samples and stuff, once I heard the train, shit, I thought it'd be badass to have a train go straight into a Hank Williams song."

"I was just going through some of my cassettes, and that one just kind of hit me. It kind of messes up towards the end - the tape kind of fades out toward the end a little bit. I've always looked at that - whatever girl has to go out with me...I could definitely relate to that message a little bit."

"That's one song, and at first, yes, I did go out there and cut my teeth on the Hank Williams sound at first. I was pretty honest about it with people."

Hank III does not perceive himself to be the next coming of Hank Sr. "The Hank Williams of today is Wayne the Train Hancock as far as the pure Hillbilly Shakespeare. He's the man that is carrying that torch...and I think we're carving our own niche. When you see us live, we do our 20 minutes of paying respects."

"It's not out there for people trying to sit and ride coattails. It's not like Jett Williams (saying about Hank Sr.) 'he was my daddy, and I never knew him'. She'd be better off writing a book, which is the way it is."

"With all the metal projects I've done, all of the road (shows) I've done, I've separated myself from trying to rip off of Hank Williams."

Hank III grew up in Nashville, the son of Gwen and Hank Jr. But by the time Hank III was about three years old, the marriage was over, and Hank III grew up without his father around.

"He fell off a mountain in 1975," says Hank III of the accident in Montana that nearly killed his father. "He was already divorced from my mom by then. His dad died when he was three. Mine almost died when I was three. He was just doing his thing. He didn't know (about parenting). He never had a father to raise him. It's just one of those deals."

"I'd only get to see him about two weeks out of the year. It'd normally be on the road. So I got to feel the thrill of the loudness and the crazy crowds. First time on stage, playing 'Family Tradition,' I was 10 years old. So I got to feel that excitement and be very curious about it also."

"When I was younger, I got to back Hank Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd up. That's something I'll never forget. I just got to meet a lot of cool people. That's how my relationship with Waylon, Willie and David Allan Coe was, of course, through him. But at least I got to be around the last batch of real outlaws and perform with them."

He describes his upbringing as being "really normal. I went to public schools."

"Everybody was like 'there's Shelton. His dad is some big, huge country entertainer, but he's just this normal guy who doesn't have much attitude. He's just hanging out just like we are'."

"I didn't have any family saying you got to do this or you got to do that. It was my decision always to be in punk bands or metal bands or country bands. It was no pressure from the mother."

And that's what he did in high school. He knew his country roots, but he didn't have that much to do with playing the music until the legal system intervened.

Williams had a one-night stand. Three years later, he learned the result - a son. "They served me papers on stage when I was playing with one of my punk bands, saying you've got to be in court."

Williams claims he had an unfriendly judge, who ordered him to pay $50,000 in child support "when I'm making anywhere from $75 to $150 a week."

Apparently looking for a challenge, he accepted one from the judge.

Hank III says the judge told him that "playing music ain't no real good job so you're going to have get out there and get a real job. From this day on, I'm not getting back in a f----n band. I was 19."

"Back then, all I cared about was one thing - drums. I was a player. I wasn't thinking being a front man or about being a songwriter or about being a singer. I wanted to be a drummer in a heavy metal, punk rock band. That's what I'd been doing since I was 10 years old."

The court decision changed that.

"I went down to Music Row and shopped (my music) around. Unfortunately ended up going with Mike (Curb). That's what officially got me into country at first."

His first Curb recording was the "Three Hanks" album with his father and grandfather, not his idea. "I never listened to it one time," he says.

His solo debut came in 1999 with "Risin' Outlaw," 13 songs of country. But he made it clear from the get go that he was not happy with the result, at odds with his label in promoting the CD.

Part of the problem was that Williams felt he gave into the label by using outside writers instead of his own material. Williams wrote 4 of the 13 songs, while he covered three of Hancock's.

The sound is far smoother and cleaner than Williams usually delivers. Hank III sounded a lot closer to the sound of his grandfather than he does now.

Williams also underwent drug rehabilitation at Curb's insistence, but he remains a user. "I've never been able to let go," he says matter of factly.

Williams continued pursuing his very hard rock music side, appearing on the 2001 Vans Warped Tour.

After his debut, Williams tried getting out of his record deal with Curb, which didn't happen, but eventually led to his second release, "Lovesick Broke & Driftin'" in 2002. Williams wrote every song except for a previously released version of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," which had appeared on a Springsteen tribute album.

Williams produced, recorded and mixed his own album in only two weeks at what he says was a far cheaper cost than the debut.

Despite exercising more control, the Williams/Curb relationship did not get any better. Williams wanted to release a third record, "This Ain't Country LP," but Curb refused and wouldn't let him self-release the music either.

Why does Curb bother with Hank Williams III?

"Because he's the real deal," says Cavanaugh. "There are thousands of wanna be country artists, but he's got the genes. He is the real deal, and sometimes he comes across as this angry outlaw, and that's part of the persona, and that is part of who he is, but he is also an incredible musician with an unbelievable gift, and we recognize that and want to be the people who bring it to the public. We're very proud to have him on Curb."

"He's amazingly talented and smart as a whip," she says. "There's good old boy there."

"Over the years, I've hear him say everything he has to say about Curb Records, He is the way he is. He doesn't pretend to be anybody else."

Hank Williams III looks at sharing the family name as a mixed bag.

"It's definitely a blessing and a curse," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're Dale Earnhardt's son or Frank Sinatra's kid. That's always going to play as factor."

"Hank Jr. had to deal with it big time. 'You're good, but you ain't Hank Williams'. He had to deal with that forever. Since I look a little bit like Hank Williams and maybe on a good day sound a little bit like him, there are some of those people who come out there expecting to see Hank Williams, wand when they see 'he cusses, he's rebel and little bit wilder', they might come up to me and say 'you're a disgrace to the family man.' I say " Well, that's fine, there's only one Hank Williams, and if that's who you're coming to see, he's already gone, and he's already dead. Everybody has got to find their own path. I've been working on mine."

"It keeps me going. I'm going to beat this road down until I'm 50 and then I'm going to enjoy the other side of life. I'll still tour...I'll definitely enjoy having a little piece of land and raising a goat or cutting some grass, the normal grass."

"I've chosen to live on the Lost Highway as Hank Williams would say," says Williams. "I feel that's my path, even though I plan on being around for awhile."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com