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Smoke the Fire

Hank Williams III blew the doors off country music last fall when he released three ambitious, experimental albums all on the same day. A conversation about tradition, hardcore, and punishment.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

When the CSX locomotive approaches my North Carolina home, the late-afternoon blast of its horn brings to mind Hank Williams Sr.’s “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” a tune my granddad and I listened to more than three decades ago in the backyard, chewing Cup tobacco while purple martins gathered on the power lines.

I play Mr. Williams’s song. His voice quavers with emotion as the Charlotte-bound train roars by my window, and I’m surprised the blinds don’t rattle; it’s a far cry from the way things were a few months ago in Brooklyn, where every passing subway train shook my entire building. For two decades that F line was my path through Gotham, and “H8 Line,” a song by Hank Williams III, accompanied me on subway rides during my final days in the Big Apple. With its clacking beat, buttressed by Hank III’s metallic twang, “H8 Line” conveyed an urban sensibility with down-home trappings, a prelude for my return home to the Tar Heel state. Those Williams fellows set the bar mighty high when it comes to train songs.

As a country singer, Hank III warbles and moans as well as his grandfather ever did. But he’s equally adept at stoner rock and heavy metal. I got my first dose of that material in the fall of 2009, right after he released Assjack, his first non-country record. I had just opened a gooseneck Bud and poured a shot of Jim Beam when the ominous chords of “Tennessee Driver” blasted through my speakers, sending five mice scurrying into my Brooklyn apartment. Just when I’d settled into my escapism groove, Hank III’s guttural growls and death-metal dirge brought in rodent gawkers to watch me brood and guzzle boilermakers. I cursed and swung a broom at them, but couldn’t scare those shit-eating bastards. They loved Assjack. It wasn’t till I wised up and plugged in the headphones that they finally left me alone.

The thing is, listening to Assjack reminds me that three generations of Williamses have made a significant impact not only on country, but also on rock music. Hank Williams Sr. had a profound influence on Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and for decades his son, Hank Jr., packed arenas with his own brand of country-rock. But Hank III’s recent forays into rural-industrial thrash have upset all kinds of genre snobs—country, metal and industrial purists—much the way they were disturbed by the digressions of his early influences—hardcore innovators like Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra and shock rocker GG Allin, whose appalling onstage repartee often got him arrested during live shows.

“GG broke all of the boundaries,” Hank III says on the telephone from his home in Nashville. “He did everything you’re not supposed to do and made [live performance] like a prison riot. But he loved country music. He put out a rebellious country record and basically lived out a country song—he spent time in prison, and after he lost his lady, everything else went bad.”

The funereal soundscape of Attention Deficit Domination is akin to waking up in an open grave with four hits of acid onboard as Hank III glares down at you, screaming you your last rites.

Allin pushed the boundaries of punk rock and bad taste as far as they could go. But on Sept. 6, 2011, Hank III did something equally unconventional—he released three ambitious, wildly experimental albums on the same day.

This music is frightening stuff. The funereal soundscape of Attention Deficit Domination is akin to waking up in an open grave with four hits of acid onboard as Hank III glares down at you, screaming you your last rites. When 3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin’ slips into the queue, I find my sore soul condemned to a livestock sale barn where auctioneer patter streams through cracked speakers at dizzying speeds while disgruntled cattle buyers feed empty beer cans and whiskey bottles into a wood chipper.

Frazzled and frayed, I restore my blown circuits with Jim Beam just in time for Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town, a double disc of country and Cajun-influenced gems from the Tennessee hollows and the swampy bayous of Louisiana that fuse sophisticated instrumentation and production brilliance with bizarre, twisted lyrics. Hank III’s recurring use of effects, rural noise, and nocturnal sounds add an eerie, surrealistic ambiance. Contributions from his dog Trooper, his buddy Ray Lawrence Jr., and the inimitable Tom Waits flesh out the material with earthy, granular textures. Taken as a whole, Hank III’s recent work embodies an astonishing dichotomy—it’s both a celebration of artistic diversity and an all-out assault on the very musical styles that he incorporated to make the records.

“When I’m dead and gone, people can look back on musical history, and it’ll be a first, really,” he says. “The first artist who came close to it was Frank Zappa, but his label wouldn’t let him release all the records from different genres on the same day. I’m not comparing myself to Frank Zappa as a musician, I’m just saying that he’s the only person who came close to that concept.”

Like Zappa, Hank III has an experimental acuity and a penchant for off-color humor that have made him stand out among his country contemporaries in a notoriously conservative industry. And as happened with Zappa, Hank III saw his former label, Curb Records, postpone the release of earlier material, forcing him into a toxic legal dispute over rights to his own songs. So he started his own label and oversaw the entire creative and production processes for his latest records, harkening back to the independent spirit of the ‘80s-underground’s do-it-yourself attitude. Given the audacity it takes to write and release such bold, challenging material, it’s hard not to view his stupendous output as a three-album “fuck you” aimed at Curb Records.

 

I’d had enough of the city life when I left Brooklyn. I longed for the sweet summer scents of magnolia and honeysuckle, the pungent, smoky taste of pulled-pork barbecue, and bourbon-fueled fishing excursions—all potential elements of a great country song. But once back home, I realized I’d left behind the bar two blocks away that served alcohol with a generous side of country tunes at all hours.

I don’t hear Hank III at my new neighborhood bar. Instead, I’m offered a steady stream of country-pop pabulum—Big and Rich, Brooks and Dunn, and the slick, packaged patriotism of, God help us, Montgomery Gentry. I find a couple of Hank Jr.’s songs in the jukebox. When I can no longer stomach the watered-down format of today’s mainstream country, I play “Family Tradition,” Hank Jr.’s classic unapologetic ode to debauchery. “Family Tradition” was the first song Hank III ever performed live. He was 10 years old, on stage with his daddy’s band.

“It was at the Fox Theater in Atlanta,” he says. “And it was exciting—the loud PA, the lights, feeling the energy of the crowd. All of the Williamses have that kind of a die-hard, loyal, rowdy fan base.”

“We were never together in any room when any of that was recorded. The whole process was cheap, sleazy, and had no heart in it at all.”

In 1996, Curb Records, then Hank Jr.’s label, carried the father-son collaboration a step further with a project that combined Hank Sr.’s recorded vocals with the singing of Hank Jr. and Hank III, a family reunion of sorts. Despite its reliance on studio tricks, Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts is a testament to singing excellence and a fascinating juxtaposition of three stellar country voices that span a half century. At times, Hank III’s pipes bear an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather’s. After all, Hank III was in his mid-20s when he made the recording, roughly the same age his grandfather was when his career peaked shortly before his death at age 29.

“I hated the concept of [Three Hanks],” Hank III explains. “It was an honor for me to sing with my grandfather and my dad, but the way they did it was wrong. We were never together in any room when any of that was recorded. The whole process was cheap, sleazy, and had no heart in it at all.”

It’s hard to imagine what those sessions must have been like, singing along with recordings of one’s deceased grandfather—a towering historical figure—while entombed in the sterile, clinical setting of the studio. How does one prepare for that sort of collaboration? And what impact, if any, does a legendary blood relative have on one’s own singing?

“I’m just fan of his music, like anybody else,” Hank III says. “That puts me out there with every other working man or woman who listens to him. It’s just a weird thing that he’s, by chance, a family member. I know a few stories from people like Marty Stuart and Minnie Pearl, and that’s about it.”

I wonder what the maestro must think about his grandson’s reverence for hardcore music, along with his own posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rock and roll was still a burgeoning phenomenon when Hank Sr. died in 1953, and any art form must survive multi-generational scrutiny before it becomes accepted. My granddad hated rock and roll. I could never convince him that Bob Dylan or the Beatles had produced anything of lasting merit. But those classic country songs spoke to him through his dying days at Beaufort County Nursing Home, his boom box by his bedside, surrounded by the music of the masters—Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins and Hank Williams Sr.

 

Now, I’m thinking ghost songs. And as Hank III and Tom Waits roar their ghastly call and response on “Ghost to a Ghost,” my own encounters with the unexplained flip through my brain, from the wraith that wandered the halls of Grandmom’s house on Wake Forest Road to the antics of specters I witnessed with my brother-in-law in the South Carolina Low Country. Restless spirits are a part of the Southeast landscape, so I’m intrigued, but not surprised, when Hank III tells me that his home is haunted.

“Some Indians would say that it’s a mischievous spirit,” he explains. “Some Wiccans would say the same thing. Who knows if it’s something from back in the Civil War days? But the good thing for me is that it feels like I have a little bit of country while living in the city. I’m renting the dream basically. And there’s a catch to why I’m able to rent this place at such a low price.”

Haunted or not, Hank III’s Nashville-area ranch is an ideal spot for collaborating with other artists who pass though the city while allowing him the physical space for comforting quotidian tasks like mowing the grass and chopping wood. It’s the perfect sanctum for nurturing the fearless independent spirit that makes him who he is.

“I’ve taken it on myself to create my own sound and fight for what I do—to breathe it, record it, mix it, master it,” Hank III says. “I don’t have no management, no secretary, any of that stuff, man. It’s just me and my dogs. And that’s a good bit to keep up with.”

And that’s how humble, gifted people like Hank III disrupt the commonplace, and later become the standard by which all else is measured. It’s in his blood. And that’s enough to make any grandparent proud.

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TMN Contributing Writer Patrick Ambrose resides in North Carolina. His other work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Timber Creek Review, and Mysterical-e. More by Patrick Ambrose