Hank Williams sang about cheatin' hearts and shedding tears in his beer. Roughly half a century later, Shelton Hank Williams has slightly different problems. "I haven't slept in two days!" rants the twenty-six-year-old grandson of the country legend. "No crank, no coke, no speed — just pot. I been having hot and cold flashes since 4:30 this morning."
It is, it should be noted, a good-natured rant. Williams is grinning as he paces the floor at the Nashville home of his stand-up bassist, Jason Brown. The youngest Hank — his father is country star Hank Williams Jr. — eerily resembles his grandfather, tall and gaunt in a black cowboy hat, black leather jacket, Reverend Horton Heat T-shirt and cowboy boots, his cascading hair pulled back into a tight braid. Last night, Williams returned from Austin, where he had risked the ultimate bad trip by dropping acid and going to a wake. Now he's preparing for an overnight bus ride to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where his band has a weekend gig. First, though, he has to swing by his pot dealer's place for a quick transaction. "He only has three customers," Williams notes cheerily. "It's blessed weed."
Williams spent his teendom bucking his legacy, singing and drumming in various punk bands. "I was like, 'I'm never gonna do country, I'm never gonna give in, you'll never see me wear a cowboy hat,"' he says. "I was a massive Sid Vicious fanatic. Used to cut myself up like him, wearing safety pins through my skin."
But three years ago, Williams finally embraced his country roots. Since then, his story has been a familiar tale of sex, drugs and, um, high-pitched yodeling. Williams has played oprys, dinner theaters and police fund-raisers. His sets mix classic C&W — including crowd-pleasing renditions of his grandfather's hits — with new songs written in a retro style, with fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Such purist honky-tonk is jolted alive with punk attitude: Williams' songs include "Fuck Nashville," and his covers veer toward old blues with lines like, "Dreamin"bout a reefer, five feet long…."
Williams lives in a secluded trailer in semirural Lebanon, Tennessee, about thirty miles east of Nashville. The place is spacious but, at the moment, fairly trashed. Western shirts hang from curtain rods. An empty bottle of Jack Daniel's sits atop a fifty-inch television, just below a velvet painting of a bulldog. A snapshot of his mom's father, posing with a gun and a dead raccoon, lies on the floor next to a Goo Goo cluster.
The pad hasn't quite recovered since Williams' girlfriend of seven years moved out a few months back. Shortly thereafter, in true country-music fashion, his dog died. Most recently, he discovered that a homemade porn starring Williams and a lady friend was missing.
"All I can say is, if it comes out, it'll put Pamela and Tommy Lee to shame," says Williams, who is forthcoming to a fault. "Their video was a bunch of 'awww,' 'oooh,' but it wasn't fuckin'. My video is real fuckin', man. Dildos and everything." Around midnight, band and tour bus rendezvous chez Williams. Brown, a former guitar tech for NOFX, has been a steady band member for years. The rest of the six-piece group is made up of Nashville musicians, ranging in age from thirty to sixtysomething. Eddie Pleasant, Hank III's merchandise and scheduling guy, who is almost seventy, also comes along. "I been here since water," he says.
"Gimme the bad news," Williams says as the bus rumbles down the dirt road leading away from his trailer. He has changed into a Misfits T-shirt and sweats, and let his hair down so that he looks like a roadie for a death-metal band. "Where we playin' tomorrow?"
"Boogie's," Pleasant drawls.
"Boogie's?" Williams asks skeptically.
"Two-hundred-seater," Pleasant says. "Club."
Williams nods. "I'm just glad we're playin' somewhere that serves alcohol."
All weekend, Williams seems alternately depressed and defiant about the current state of his career. Renting a tour bus, for example, is a hefty expense for a small club date. "It breaks me, man," he says, lounging in the back with his ever-present one-hitter. "My driver makes more than the players. But when I got into country, I said I ain't gonna settle for nothing less. I know they say it's paying your dues, but I did that when I was playing in punk bands."
Williams' parents divorced when he was three, and he's never been close to his father, which partly fueled his attraction to punk. He eventually gave up his "punk-rock dream" when, three years after a one-night stand, he found himself staring down a paternity suit. "I owed them $24,000 back pay in child support, plus $589 a month," he says. "And that, as bad as it might sound, is why I got into country. I had to say, 'Well, shit, man, you gotta quit screaming. You're gonna have to make some money.' I told all my punk friends, 'If I'm gonna do country music, I'm gonna milk it."'
For Williams, that meant blatantly trading on his family name. He dropped "Shelton" for "Hank III," and he recorded a dreadful Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts album with his father and the voice of his grandfather. He also cut his own still-unreleased album for Curb Records, a project he now disowns. "It sucks so bad," he complains. "They didn't have any balls. When you hear my CD, there's a good voice with a bunch of wishy-washy players."
But for Williams, a funny thing happened while he was trying to sell out: He started to find his voice, looking to older artists like Ernest Tubb and retrominded contemporaries like Wayne Hancock for inspiration. "I've only got about seventeen songs of my own right now," says Williams, who spends much of his downtime in the back of the tour bus, strumming along to tapes of newfound heroes. "I've got my Lord song, my devil song. I'm still working on my sound, but I consider what I do slacker country for right now."
"When Hank [Jr.] was twenty-four, twenty-five, he was in a very hard place, and it's the same place I see Shelton in now," says Hank III's mother, Gwen Williams. "[Hank Jr.] had been compared to his father all his life, and when he finally rebelled, those were the songs that sent him over the top. The history lines match up all the way through in the history of these guys."
The tour bus pulls into Bill Clinton's hometown early Saturday. Boogie's turns out to be a converted train depot. Toward the rear of the room there's a life-size fiberglass bull bucking up on its front legs, surrounded by hay. A sign says: HAVE YOUR PICTURE TAKEN WITH THE BULL, $6. The club owner informs Williams that last night's performer was Michael Twitty, son of the late Conway Twitty, and that after Boogie's closed at two, Twitty partied at an after-hours club until five. "That Twitty motherfucker," Williams fumes later. "No one with the name of Twitty's gonna out-party us. We can't let that happen, man."
That night, the Boogie's crowd is handily won over. As a songwriter, Williams remains rough-edged, a work in progress, but he proves to be a natural performer, plowing through his granddad's "Your Cheatin' Heart," his daddy's "Family Tradition," his own jauntily mean-spirited breakup song, "What's His Name?" The band is impressively tight, and as frontman, Williams has the cracking voice and the outlaw charisma. He is seemingly proof of the old adage — no offense, Bocephus — about talent skipping a generation. The set ends with Waylon Jennings' "Good Hearted Woman," during which Williams, attacking his acoustic guitar, drives the rest of the band to a frenzied climax.
Later, at the after-hours club — an after-hours club where, around four in the morning, kids start spontaneously line-dancing — Williams soundly out-parties the hated Twitty, eventually stealing off with some drunk friends. It's after six when the bus finally pulls out of Hot Springs. Williams emerges from the back and hoots, "Y'all ready to leave, you fuckin' wimps?" But he's still in an upbeat mood. A guy he met at the club wants to hire the band for a private Fourth of July party, and he promised to supply Ecstasy.
As we roll toward Memphis, Williams is still not ready for bed. He retreats to the back of the bus, drawing the curtains to block out the rising sun, and begins pickin' on his guitar, belting out one more classic number. "That was by the great songwriters Cheech and Chong," he announces after his final strum, polite as if he's playing the Grand Ole Opry, "a tune called 'Up in Smoke."'