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A person can't be too careful when it comes to calling another person by his right name, especially when he has several. Hank Williams III was born Shelton, which is what his good friend and fellow country singing rebel Wayne "the Train" Hancock calls him. Others call him "Hank 3," his rather smartly chosen professional name. Or they occasionally just call him "Three." "Some people just call me Trip,'" says Williams. "But as we're talking about country music, you might as well call me Hank.'"
Seems fair. Williams, 30, is blue-blood country, and not just because he is the real genetic material – the grandson of country legend Hank Williams, who cut a gouge so deep into hillbilly music it has yet to be filled. And not just because he is the son of Hank Jr., a.k.a. Bocephus, who nearly drowned in that same gouge before he found a voice as a rowdy, good-time singer. What makes Williams a real blue blood, in the honky-tonk tradition, is his singin' and songwritin' and sound and attitude – attitude with a capital A.
This attitude means Williams is as much a diehard fan of angry death metal, punk and thrash as he is of hillbilly music, so much so that he plays two sets a night. In one, he does straight country; in the other, he ignites a moshpit frenzy. Williams' position in the stratosphere is more gutter than curb.
"I get a lot of walkouts when the second set starts," he says, laughing. "But I grew up on Black Flag, and then got into Slayer and Pantera when that stuff came around." His first official "bootleg" cassette, from 2000, is called Hank III Says Fuck You!!!, and the wacked-out art looks like something some surly loner might doodle on his junior-high desktop.
"On stage, Shelton does some of his stuff and some of his daddy's stuff and some of his granddaddy's stuff and a lot of my stuff, and then he does his other set, and then about half the people get up and leave," Hancock laughs. "He's tryin to find his way, man, and God bless him."
In the message boards on Williams' Web site (www.hankthree.com), visitors identify their postings with handles such as "Assjack Fuck Knuckle" and "Alcoholic Butane Junkie," and, from one post to the next, they can be found praising Johnny Cash and Iron Maiden. It's a subculture in the making, and Hank 3 lies in its vibrant middle.
Attitude also gives Williams an adversarial relationship with the country music industry. There might not be another high-profile artist in town who has thrown himself as fiercely at the upper-crusty walls of Nashville.
"It's Curb Records, man," says Williams. "They don't want nobody on their label who says fuck' and shit' and piss' all the time, and they don't know how to deal with me or my music. All that Nashville shit, Keith Urban and all that. That ain't the stuff, man." Williams has two CDs released by Curb, which rests under the MCA umbrella and boasts names such as the Osmond Family, and Lee Greenwood. In all fairness, though, there are a number of decent acts on Curb, including Williams' dad, Junior Brown and Ray Stevens.
Curb is reticent to go on the record, but Liz Cavanaugh, who handles press for the label, says, "Hank is venting, and that's what he does, and that's who he is. He's also extremely talented and we're happy he's here, on the same label as his father."
That Williams' complaint is an old one doesn't make it any less valid.
"They just don't have a clue as to how to market what I do. The industry is fucked. There's me and Junior Brown and a few others, Dale Watson and Wayne [Hancock]. We can't get on the radio for shit. I'm on the road playing more than 100 shows a year; it's what puts food on the table. That and the merchandising."
Williams is a walking, talking poster boy for biting the hand that feeds him, and then going back for seconds. The merchandising he refers to includes tee shirts that read "Fuck Curb Records." He sells those on his Web site and at his shows. If he's hiding any of his feelings, he's making a pretty poor show of it.
In fact, on his most recent CD, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin', Williams makes it pretty clear how he feels about it all.
"Well, I used to think that country was out of Nashville, Tennessee, but all I see in Nashville is a bunch of backstabbers takin' you and me. They don't care about the music, ya see," he sings on "Trashville."
"I mean, they wanted me to be doing Hank Williams songs on records with my dad and my granddad all dubbed in," says Hank 3. "What the fuck is that?"
It's not as though there haven't been precedents to this type of behavior. After all, Dwight Yoakam emerged from and was embraced by the punk culture of L.A. in the early '80s. The difference is that Yoakam never cranked his amp up to 11 and beat his brains out onstage while wearing a Misfits tee shirt – or split his audience down the middle with the grace of a lumberjack on meth.
And while Yoakam never hesitated to fire acid barbs at the Nashville hierarchy and its never-ending efforts to gentrify and polish country into pop, he did so from a fairly safe distance.
Williams attacks the powers that be not only from inside the walls of Nashville, but he does so with the name and genetic lineage of a man who was arguably the greatest singer-songwriter in the history of country music.
Wayne Hancock is not only a friend of Hank 3. He also let Williams record some of his songs, three of which appear on Hank's earlier record, Risin' Outlaw.
"He's a really great guy, and everything you ever heard about him being an asshole – he's not," says Hancock. "He's very shy, down-to-earth. Matter of fact, the reason I let that guy do my songs is 'cause he's the only sonuvabitch I ever liked. And he can sing. He can't sing like me, thank goodness, but he can sing."
On Williams' relationship with Nashville, Hancock chortles.
"When I put Fuck Nashville' on my tee shirts, I didn't live in Nashville! It takes some balls."
Which would mean exactly nothing if Williams wasn't such a talented artist and performer. The songs on Lovesick, Broke & Driftin'are real, uncompromised and raw, just like his dad and granddad before him.
Williams wrote all but one of the tunes, and they range from sad and lonesome, like Hank 1 at his best, to high-gear hillbilly honky-tonk. Williams' voice is whiny as a hound dog, and his mood can shift from broke and low-down to mean as a razor-fanged rattlesnake.
"I'm not gonna be able to yodel like this for very long, though," he says. "It's the Robert Plant syndrome. I can't be this squeaky and nasal forever."
Williams doesn't much cross from metal to mournful – he keeps his genres pretty well isolated – but tracks such as "Nighttime Ramblin' Man" are as fast as a Japanese bullet train, while the one cover, a version of Bruce Springsteen's 1982 folk gem "Atlantic City," disappears midtrack to be overtaken by a remix of a song that appears earlier on the record, "Walkin' With Sorrow," a yodel-driven tune.
Besides touring with his band, Assjack, Williams also takes a little time each year to play bass in a handful of sets with Superjoint Ritual, an on-again/off-again metal band fronted by Phillip Anselmo of Pantera.
"I got into this because a judge thought I was a deadbeat dad, and he told me I had no future as a musician. I wanted to prove him wrong," says Williams. The story has it that Williams was obligated to pay child support for the consequence of a one-night stand, considerably after the fact.
"I'll tell you a story about when I met Shelton, which says something about the guy," says Hancock. "When he and I first met, he was drivin' down the road, and I was rollin' a joint, and a lady ran a stop sign and broadsided us; the spliff went everywhere. Nobody got hurt, but the cops came over there pretty quick, and I was a bit out of it. Shelton, being the kind of guy he is, he says, Well, you know, Wayne, you don't have a name in this town like I do, and my daddy's got some money. He'll get me out of jail. Why don't you take a walk, and I'll deal with the law.'
"But I thought about it a minute, and I realized I couldn't think of anything better to do in Nashville than to spend a night in jail with Hank Williams the Third. So I stayed there and stuck it out with him, and it was cool. Nobody wound up in jail, but I'll never forget it, which is why that's one of my favorite stories.
"I don't think people really understand why [Williams] is not doing Hank Williams. Well shit, he ain't any of them guys. He's Shelton! You keep your money on him, man; he'll be around a long time."