The murmurs will dog him. Unlike his long-haired, rotund father, Hank Williams III shares that gaunt, lean specter of a look his (in)famous grandfather personified. The whole damn world feels like it knows this twenty-seven-year-old, weed-bent and hellbound singer-songwriter simply because of the timeless legacy of his grandfather’s music, which is a bit absurd when you stop and think that Hank III’s father wasn’t even four years old when his grandfather died in the back of a caddy en route to a performance.
Yet talk of the bloodline is inevitable. Hank Jr. was ripped for copying his father, so he did the unthinkable: he created his own brash identity. “Jesus Christ, he’s a five-time entertainer of the year,” Williams III says of those who knock his father’s career. “He’s got a million No. 1’s, sold countless albums, built an army of rednecks. They [the detractors] don’t know shit about him.” Both Hanks, Jr. and III, could have shed the tag: Junior was born Randall Hank, his son Sheldon Hank (even grandpa was born Hiram Hank). But there’s a certain punk-defiance in taking that hallowed middle name and making it one’s own.
And there lies Hank III’s card. Rather than avoid the legacy like it was a hitchhiker, he’s pulled his 1960 Cadillac over, picked up that devil of a family name and roared towards the American dream pissed off and high as a kite. It’s a lifestyle that has him physically burned out, with empty pockets, child-support payments, two lingering smoking addictions and the weight of family baggage that comes with being a Hank Williams. But for Williams the troubles are simply part of a learning continuum in a life less ordinary. At age ten he was banging drums for his father (“I always saw myself as a sideman. I figured I’d end up a drummer”). By junior high, suffering from dyslexia and ADD, he had been kicked out of a Nashville private school. Chasing a music career almost straight out of high school, he spent the better part of the following eight years making music and mistakes.
The release of the belligerently honky-tonk Rising Outlaw only partially defines Hank III. Weaned as much on the sounds of Kiss, Black Sabbath and AC/DC as the Nashville cats his grandfather inspired, Hank III builds his home on the hidden truth that punk and country are two teats on the same udder. “It’s all misery, depression, heartache, darkness in there,” he says of both genres. Thus, concert-goers are treated to two sets a night; first, a helping of the gut-bucket honky-tonk that defines Risin’ Outlaw, and then the band shifts into punk mode. “We usually do the country set first,” Williams says. “And then I say, ‘For all you older people out there, we hope you understand this, we appreciate your coming, we hope you have a safe trip home,’ and then we get into the screaming. I’m just trying to do both things while I’m young enough to do it.” And, on many occasions, the silver-haired listeners surprise Williams by sticking around.
With a new generation of musicians fusing their joint love of punk and country, Williams found contentment in letting each style reflect its similarities without any sort of melding. “It’s just what I do,” he says. “The screaming and punk stuff is probably the reason I can stand on my own two feet. My country stuff, it might sound like Hank Williams — that’s just the way it is. But I’d rather sound like Hank Williams than Trace Atkins. Anyway I’m just feeling things out. Having fun. Meeting my heroes.”
And then there are those heroes. More than a couple of them surfaced in Hank Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down.” And while those heroes are first-rate musical inspiration, they don’t always make for the best role models. Years of hard living have left a number of these heroes swollen survivors carrying the scars of lessons learned. And despite a familial understanding of the burden the bottle can bring, Williams finds no shortage of strangers all too eager to buy him shots during shows. He never refuses them; it would disappoint. To boot, Williams is also working on a pot habit that lands in the ballpark of $300 a week. “Well I’m also supplying my whole fucking band, it seems like. I’m wanting to cut down soon, but I’m just not there yet.”
Williams is quite aware of the graveness of his lifestyle. He frequently justifies poor choices with the certainty that he’s behaving that way because he’s young. But his youth is also a source of strength and fire. Bring up Nashville’s most hallowed institution, the Grand Ole Opry, which canned his grandfather and ignored his father, and he doesn’t hesitate to let ‘er rip. “They’re fucked man,” he says, giving the expletive that extra “uh” that implies a particularly keen hatred. “It’s nothing but a bunch of old geezers. The Opry used to be run by young people, and they used to have young entertainers on there all the time. That’s how it got so huge. Now it’s awful. No fun, no energy, no charisma, nothing. But that’s fine. Cash didn’t need it. Haggard didn’t need it. I’ve played there a few times, but it’s just stale and boring to me. I’d much rather be in a bar.”
Thus Williams spends a good deal of time in bars. His album has been collectively ignored by all country radio. “It’s gonna take some time, man,” he says of the prospects of change in country radio. “Radio can break you. If they played more Dale Watson or Wayne Hancock or BR5-49 it would help that force, but they don’t care about that ’cause all they care about is numbers. That’s the big thing, you know, start blowing up the fucking radio towers and start listening to Internet radio. I listen to more Internet radio than I do regular radio.”
Until said razing occurs, Williams is condemned to the road, a place he knows and enjoys, but one that has been taxing on his health. In addition to various forms of excess and consumption, he’s dealing with a cold that he can’t shake and that has him in frequent coughing fits. Then there’s the obligatory venue troubles. “I’ve never had a rude rock audience,” he says. “But I’ve had ten to fifteen rude-ass motherfucking country audiences. So I just say, ‘Look man, if you don’t understand what real country used to be, right there’s the fucking door. We’ll give you your fucking money back, and you can get the hell out.’ We go on and we’re a country ass band playing real hard old-school country. And the people are looking at us like we took their fun away cause now they can’t dance. It’s not my problem that they can’t swing dance. So now whenever we get put into that situation, we’ve turn it up and scream at ’em and really clear the place out.”
The grind and conflict of life on the road comes with but a few sporadic breaks. And home isn’t exactly luxury and sanctuary. Williams shares an unglamorous pad in East Nashville where he pays $137 a month in rent. Anything better will probably have to wait until he’s paid off his “back-porch child-support” (the result of a one-night stand), or an album breakout, which isn’t out of the question. While Risin’ Outlaw isn’t burning through SoundScan, Williams has two additional projects in the planning stages. “We’re hoping we’ll get some time here soon to go in and do a couple of different albums and get them out there,” he says. “I’ve already got [another] country CD written. All we gotta do is find the right producer for that. I’ve pretty much got this [punk] CD too; it’s done and written. I’m hoping it’ll be out in about three months. Should be called ‘Hank III: Ass Jack,’ or something like that. I got to get ’em out, because we got too many kids asking for them when we go on these tours.”
Though he doesn’t have a label for his punk pursuit, don’t look for Williams to try the DIY approach. “Boy, I wouldn’t know how to go that route,” he says. “I’m too stoned to be able to figure that shit out. I have never had a business mind. I hadn’t had management for a long time. Now I finally do; we had to find someone to run the ship. Because, you know, pretty much everyone in my band is a recreational user, or whatever. If someone’s not there to take care of hotels, make sure we know where we’re going, it gets crazy. One day I might go independent, but I can’t be as wild, free and reckless as I want to be because I gotta pay for my mistakes. I probably won’t be as pissed off as I am in five years. I probably won’t be screaming as much, but we’ll see. Our goal is not to fade out. Take our time and do what we do. If we can get a couple of albums out doing two different kinds of things, I’ll be happy.”