It probably comes as no great surprise to the fans of Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank III, that the artist who confounds country music conventions and tours on a split personality country-metal bill, does things his own way.
Whether it's sticking up his middle finger at Nashville and its most hallowed grounds, the Grand Ole Opry, or feuding with his own record label, Hank III does more to earn his outlaw image in a day than most so-called alt-country acts do in their entire career. That can make it tough on people like, you know, fans and journalists. So when we got word that Hank wasn't sending any advance copies of his new album, Rebel Within, to the local press, it came as no great surprise. And when Hank's in-house publicist informed us that the enigmatic stepchild of country music's first familywould be available for a 20-minute interview from the road, I was only cautiously optimistic. True to his word, the call eventually came - two hours before our press deadline on Tuesday, roughly half a week after it was scheduled.
I tried to beg off, but Hank III's handlers, like the man himself, don't take no for an answer. Pushing back deadline duties, I caught up with Hank over the phone in Calgary where the band has been playing dates over the past few weeks to die-hard fans who show up on weeknights for his legendary marathon shows that sometimes don't start until 10:30 p.m. Williams, who stops in Bend next week to play the Domino Room on Monday night, will be reprising, his three-headed monster set, or sets, during which he morphs from earnest, if foul-mouthed country crooner to demonic metal moshing frontman with a prolonged stopover in electrified psycho-billy in between. Amazingly, it's a natural progression for Hank III who cut his teeth as a drummer in southern punk and hardcore bands with names like Buzzkill and Bed Wetter and cites punk luminaries like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins as artistic influences along with Johnny Paycheck.
"Where I come from it's the full on Bible Belt," said Williams who dubs his act "Hell's House Band."
"I was a drummer and I'm still a drummer to this day and liked music that had more of an aggressive beat and that's what attracted me to the heavier stuff. My first records that I had when I was a kid were ZZ Top and Kiss and a Disneyland record. That got me on my way."
Within a few years he was diving into the Dead Kennedy's and the Misfits. That heavy influence is still evident today even on Williams more traditional arrangements. He comes off as an artist determined to play harder and faster and more evil than anyone else in a genre that's defined by its civility. You don't have to be a country music fan to appreciate the walloping lap steel or lightning fast flat picking that characterizes many of his studio recordings. But for all his talent and built-in brand-recognition, Williams has refused to play by the music industry's rules. With only four months left on his recording contract with Curb Records, Williams said he isn't looking back at what might have been.
"I've turned in my last record and I'm just waiting it out," Williams said.
In the meantime he said that the path he's forged ought to give some inspiration to musicians who don't have the name recognition or connections that Williams enjoys and spurns at the same time.
"You don't have to have this huge machine behind you to put your music out or to get to your fans. What I'm trying to do is show that you have the tools out there nowadays to do it yourself. You can record yourself for nothing and if you tour and stick with it you can get your group of fans who will be there for you," Williams said.
While Hank III said his label hasn't done much to promote him, it's probably safe to say that he doesn't make himself easily promotable to mainstream fans. Hank III makes nearly impossible to identify a radio-eligible single by scattering expletives across his albums and dedicating entire tracks to things like GG Allin tributes. In other words, his music isn't exactly Brooks and Dunn. But Hank III comes by his angst honestly - barely keeping his anti-establishment punk rage in check long enough to do the deadpan cowboy thing. And while even the most cursory listen to his throwback albums confirms that he has country in his soul in a way that his Monday Night Football crooning father never did, Hank III had to be pushed, or more accurately, dragged into his country recording career.
It's an oft recited, but true, story that Hank III was essentially compelled to cash in on his name when a judge ordered him to start making child support payments to a woman he barely knew. Ever since, he's been somewhat of a critics' pet, even as the country music machine bet on safer, less-threatening commodities like Taylor Swift. His unvarnished lyrics and less-than-family-friendly subject matter - alcoholism, bar brawling and drug abuse are frequent themes - haven't done much for his commercial appeal at a time when words like pop, country and diva can all be uttered in the same sentence without a punch line.
Wal-Mart refused to carry his previous album, Straight To Hell, the first major-label country release to be tagged with a parental advisory warning. America's retailer wasn't alone in its objections. His own label refused to release the record as it was originally recorded. Wal-Mart eventually allowed an edited version of the album in its stores, avoiding what is essentially the kiss of death for a country artist, even one as unconventional as Hank III. The entire episode prompted Hank III to lash out at his label, at one point going as far as printing up T-shirts that read "Fuck Curb."
Hank III has reportedly settled that feud, so you'll have to look for another shirt at the show. But don't worry, he's probably got a few more feuds brewing, which you may or may not hear about next Monday night at the Domino Room. Just be sure to arrive early - Hank has been known to buy out the bar of PBR. But what else would you expect from a bonafide outlaw?
Hank III, Izzy Cox
7pm doors, 8pm show Monday, June 21. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $20/advance, $23/door. Tickets at bendticket.com, Ranch Records and ticketswest.com. All ages.