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Hank Williams III Rips the Rulebook to Shreds

The early 1990s saw a rash of artists release not double albums, but two separate albums on the same day. Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Guns N' Roses tried this. The loose idea was that each album would showcase a different side of the artist and the consumer could choose which side they preferred — hopefully, both sides.

In the 2010s, the idea seems ludicrous. But outlaw country artist Shelton "Hank" Williams III, better known as Hank 3, has taken the concept two steps further, releasing four albums simultaneously. It's an audacious move, especially for an artist whose commercial stature hardly rivals such aforementioned superstars. But Williams — who operates over a variety of genres including country, hellbilly, death and doom metal, and sludge — is unconcerned with the monetary ramifications of his history-making move.

"I wanted to make musical history. I don't think any other artist has done a multi-genre release on the same day," he says by phone from his Nashville home. "I've always gone against the grain; I've always tried to do things different. Some will tell you it's over the top, some will tell you it's a waste, but at the end of the day, it goes against the masses . . . I'm pushing it to an extreme, but it goes back to the love of the music."

Considering Hank 3's cult following, he's likely to find success on some level as his fans pick their way through the musical mélange. Here's a brief breakdown of the albums — each of of which is touched upon when Williams performs in concert: Ghost to a Ghost, jointly packaged with Guttertown, features Hank 3's more familiar, raucous "hellbilly" style with a handful of traditional country songs scattered about the mix.

Guttertown's palette is acoustic. The album digs deep into the Cajun bayou and swamps where Williams' family history runs deep, conjuring up dark sounds — often muted, distorted and decidedly lo-fi — with even darker images worthy of a parental advisory warning.

Attention Deficient Domination, Hank 3's "anticipated" doom metal venture (on which he plays all the instruments) seems to have taken a page from the Melvins' songbook. There are some rip-roaring, take-no-prisoners moments, but the album frequently gets mired in a sludgy "complex" — Williams' word — that drones rather than inspires.

3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin', however, sports a cool concept: speed metal intertwined with actual cattle auctioneer calls. Auctioneers are like the speed-metal talkers of the world, and the songs work surprisingly well most of the time. Phoenix auctioneer Mitch Jordan is featured on the album, and Williams is angling to get him on stage during the Tempe show.

It was 3 Bar Ranch Callin' that caused Williams the most headaches. The production and application seemed simple enough: record auctioneers and overdub the vocals onto original Hank 3 speed-metal songs. But first Williams had to convince auctioneers of his sincerity and then deal with their egos.

"I got kind of blackballed in that world," he says. "I lost of 60 percent of the guys I had my mind set on. I was trying to explain it to these guys: 'You're not going to like the music, you're not going to understand it. Understand I'm not making fun of your industry but trying to offer inspiration to young auctioneers in a different way.' A lot of them got it.

"But, you see, I offered $500 for the rights to use [their] voices on the record. That's the straight-up deal, and I don't care if you're a kid just starting off or the most biggest auctioneer on the planet; this is the standard deal," he says. "Some of the bigwigs got a little greedy, put the calls out to all the other folks, and kind of shut me down."

Like his granddaddy, that heartbroken, lonely, hard-living country crooner Hank Williams Sr., who lived his life in song until his soul gave out in the back of a Caddie at age 29, Hank 3 has endured his share of hard luck. When his career first was taking off, Williams did some "hard time" playing Branson, Missouri, where old country stars go to finish off fading careers. In fact, he never really intended to be a country musician, despite his lineage. Instead, a surprise paternity suit, the result of a one-night stand with a vice cop's daughter, forced his hand. When a judge ordered him to pay $27,000 in back alimony, it was time to put on the cowboy hat.

"I just had to get out of the situation I was in. I didn't want to work at McDonald's, and the only other things I could do was put in garage doors or sell dope. It was time to play the game," Hank 3 recalls. "I got in there and did it for three or four years. I got a country manager, so instead of going to a bar with a bunch of hardcore rednecks who would chew you up and spit you out, I learned how to sing to a sit-down, mellow crowd. I went to Branson and did about 52 shows in 45 days. That is where I started to learn my chops and how to be a kind, courteous, and respectful young man and all that bullshit. I was wearing the suit back then and singing a lot of Hank Williams Sr. songs; just figuring out my sound and getting used to a melody.

"It was a stepping stone — just like going to school — but it was a little tough," he adds. "People [were] going to sleep right there in front of me and all."

Nobody falls asleep at a Hank 3 show these days. He typically opens the show with a more country-leaning set, mixing classic honky-tonk with more raucous hellbilly numbers. He plays the country set first because, despite his fervent hardcore following, his core fan base comes from the country side, including some old-timers still curious about this youngster who's a dead ringer for his granddaddy — in both looks and voice.

"They'll always be there, and I still have to deal with some of the ones saying, 'Well, you're your grandfather,'" Hank 3 says. "Well, no, I'm not. There's only one Hank Williams, and he came and left and no one will ever do him justice. I have to stand by my guns and say I'm Hank 3, whether you like that or not. I've stood on my own two feet, carved my own niche, and you might not understand it, but it's what I do."

And Hank 3, as always, does what he wants. Finally free of the constricting and controlling Curb Records, his former label, Williams no longer has to fight about album content. The emotional separation was enough to inspire the four-album outburst in just a few months.

"I've been held back for so many years [that] I think a lot of it was being excited, being on a roll, and just keeping it going. Since I had such a great group of musicians around with me on some of these projects, it warmed the fire a little more," Hank 3 concludes. "The reason I got into music is to be creative myself, not have some fucker be creative for me. I am getting to do it the way I want to do it."

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver