Sex, Drugs & Yodelling: The Hank Williams III Story
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.”‘