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.”‘