Photograph by Jean Laughton
Country singer wrestles with a family legacy
By Greg Cahill
He’s a walking contradiction. Hank Williams III –born Shelton Hank Williams–is the grandson of country legend Hank Williams and son of country rocker and hellraiser Hank Williams Jr. He sports honky-tonk genes that any alt-country wannabe would give his left nut for. His cover of “Long Gone Daddy” on Timeless, last year’s Grammy-nominated tribute to Hank Sr., gave that all-star project some much-needed authenticity. But Hank III, who makes his North Bay debut on April 24 at the Mystic Theatre, is also a diehard Black Sabbath fan who used to play drums in a punk-thrash band called Buzzkill and whose musical heroes run closer to Kurt Cobain than Roy Acuff. These days, Hank III is promoting his new country album, Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’, while battling Curb Records to release a rock album that’s been languishing in the can for months.
Country. Punk. To Hank III, whose three albums salute the whiskey-soaked boundaries of honky-tonk Americana, it’s all the same. “I was lucky enough to start hanging out with guys like [alternative country singers] Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock and Dale Watson,” he told MSNBC in a recent interview. “They were showing me you can still be punk rock and hardcore [country] in a more old-school way.”
Still, being the grandson of a music legend who has been hailed as “the most important voice in country music history” can be a mixed blessing. In a recent review of Lovesick, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pondered “the burden of being Hank III” and wondered if Williams isn’t too distracted “trying to fit himself into those notions of what he should be singing about” instead of finding his own voice.
No doubt about it, 29-year-old Hank III walks a fine line. Tall and lanky, he’s the spitting image of his grandfather, who died in 1953 after a life of alcohol and drug abuse–at age 29–in the back seat of a Cadillac on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Hank Sr.’s hit single at the time: “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive.”
As the son of Hank Jr. and his second wife, Gwen Yeargin Williams, Hank III grew up in Atlanta and Nashville, often not seeing his father for years at a time. Cursed with a learning disability, Hank III fared poorly in school. When his father’s band passed through town, his young son would sit in on drums and was quick to learn the benefits of life as a musician. “Growing up and going to my dad’s shows and seeing the excitement of all these people, the cigarette smoke and all the drinking, girls running around with their shirts off,” he told MSNBC, “at 12 years old, 11 years old, that was like, ‘Wow, look at that!'”
As a teen, it didn’t take long to realize that he could either struggle financially in a punk band or cash in on his famous name. He moved to Branson, Mo., the country-music theme park, and started playing Hank Sr. songs for two shows a day at a local theater.
Eventually his punk sensibilities kicked in and Hank III started pumping up his sets with hardcore honky-tonk à la the Texas-born Wayne Hancock. In 1996, Curb Records released Hank III’s solo debut, Three Hanks: Men with Broken Hearts, which paired him with his father and used some of Hank Sr.’s recordings. But it was 1999’s solo album Risin’ Outlaw, which included two honky-tonk classics by Hancock, that heralded Hank III’s arrival.
Lovesick, produced by Williams with no regard for country radio, signals his intention to handle the family business with twangy, hard-rockin’ vengeance. “I finally got to do it predominantly my way,” he told Country Standard Time. “I’m pretty stoked about it. At least I’m proud of it. It makes you feel more like you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and not like a puppet. I’m here to be kind of creative and not to be told what to do.”
Hank Williams III performs on Wednesday, April 24, at 8pm, at the Mystic Theatre, 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. The Mother Truckers open the show. Tickets are $18. 707.765.2121.
From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.