THE RETURN OF HANK III
When we last checked in with Shelton Hank Williams early in 2006, he was feeling righteously proud of his then-new album, the sprawling, fierce and edgy Straight to Hell, which broke all the rules of country music while still managing to honor its traditions. “That was a big one for me, man,” III says of STH. “Rock kids that don’t listen to country understood it. That record really had an impact.”
Don’t look now, but here comes the next one. Damn Right Rebel Proud (Curb, Oct. 21) can be seen as III’s life story in 13 songs, and as such it’s laced with the withering honesty we’ve come to expect from the straight-talkin’ third-generation rebel, but on this spirited outing he’s peeled even more layers off the onion of his raging psyche ; consequently, a greater percentage of these autobiographical ditties contemplate the morning (or the afternoon) after, though the excesses of the night before are once again amply represented.
“Damn Right Rebel Proud is just kind of a theme – getting’ drunk, fallin’ down and all that good stuff,” he says. “But I’m a little older, and this record’s a little bit deeper. It’s got more of the Jekyll and Hyde and some of the attitude, with a coupla slow songs. All of the fans are pretty much familiar with most of the songs ’cause I’ve been doing ’em live. Because there isn’t that much music on me out there, they eat it up right when they get it.” He’s not boasting, just speaking from experience.
III cut the new album the same way he recorded Straight to Hell – in his house, with the same vibe and the same crew of hot-shot pickers, each of them getting a chance to loosen up from their regular gigs in mainstream country sessions. “We set up on the bar, it took about two weeks to get it all lined up and recorded, and it was a pretty smooth process. I like doin’ it more myself right now because it goes against the grain of the Nashville way. Sure, there’s people out there startin’ their own labels and stuff like that, but as far as livin’ with the record full-on, hands-on ’til it’s done, not many artists do that in country. Most of the time they step in, do their vocals and say, ‘OK, mister engineer, I’ll be back in about a week and see what we gotta finish up.’ I care about the project, and that’s why I like bein’ part of it all the way through.”
He opens the album with “The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand),” which from this point onward will serve as the theme song of III’s continuing “Reinstate Hank” crusade, dedicated to getting his granddaddy back into the Nashville institution from which he was kicked out in 1952 until he sobered up. Williams’ death a few months later made the issue moot as far as the Opry was concerned, but III sees it differently, still unable to get his head around the Opry leadership’s ongoing refusal to honor the legacy of one of America’s greatest artists. He’s working on a DVD about the issue, in which a bunch of high-profile artists put in their two cents and he hopes to put together an all-star concert to further the cause.
The first single is the mutated truckers’ tune “Long Hauls & Close Calls,” for which a video has been shot. III thinks of it as the album’s “crossover” track, explaining that “It’s got a little bit of the scream for the kids in black and a little bit of the banjo and dobro for the country folks.”
The album honors tradition here and there. “Wild & Free” has a rollicking, Buck Owens flavor, ”Me & My Friends” is “a standard, good ol’ country song,” the populist anthem “If You Can’t help Your Own” addresses what’s goin’ on right now with the government,” and the closing “Workin’ Man,” a duet with the tune’s author, writer/artist/construction worker Bob Wayne, sounds like an Alan Lomax field recording from the 1930s.
The album’s magnum opus is the 10-minute, shitkickin’ symphony in three movements “P.F.F.” (you can guess what it stands for), which he describes as “a high-energy, get-drunk singalong.” He dedicates it to archetypal shock rocker G.G. Allin (certainly a first on a Nashville album), whom III understandably views as a spiritual brother in chaos. “The hobo kids, the train-hopping kids, they all love Hank Williams and G.G. Allin,” he points out. “And they’ve bled into our audience.” III’s crowd is a roiling mix of outsider subcultures, along with working folks and party-down college kids. “Most of the time everybody’s gettin’ along,” he says. “Most of the trouble we’ve had has been with the security, not the kids. I’m still tryin’ to keep one half happy and the other half satisfied by flip-floppin’ the shows” between stone country, punk and metal sets. “We’re just doin’ what we’re doin’, and people see the realness in that.”
There’s some disturbingly dark stuff on here, like “3 Shades of Black,” which climaxes with a bloodcurdling horror-core scream, and “Stoned & Alone,” III’s corrosive take on a cryin’-in-your-beer country ballad, aches like a hangover after a three-day bender. “My dad’s version of that song would be ‘The Pressure Is On,’” he says. “I still live for the road ; I don’t live for a lady – I guess that’s part of the problem.”
But if you want really dark, check out “Candidate for Suicide.” “All the things I’m talkin’ about in that song – the rape, the drug abuse and feelin’ on the outskirts of life, as G.G. would say – that’s all true,” he acknowledges. But just because you’re a candidate doesn’t mean you’re gonna go through with it. I’ve got no respect for anyone who tries to take the easy way out. Unless you can’t take care of yourself or stuff like that, I’m always standin’ for you to hold onto life as much as you can. There’s a huge amount of depression out there, and that’s really what the song’s about. ‘Candidate for Suicide’ is dark, but it’s not sayin’ do it ; it’s just talkin’ about how it crosses your mind a good bit.”
At press time, III was conducting his version of a talent search in order to replace the latest drummer he’s burned through (as opposed to burned up, as in the case of Spinal Tap). As usual, he’s got a bunch of side projects going on as well. His punk band Assjack is still representin’, and he’s behind the drum kit with the headbangin’ jam band Arson Anthem, reuniting him with former Superjoint Ritual bandmate and Pantera genius Phil Anselmo. Fronting AA is another of Shelton’s inspirations in his formative years – Mike Williams of New Orleans metal band EYEHATEGOD. “They were takin’ care of the Bible Belt,” III explains. “A lot of heavy metal bands wouldn’t come through Nashville, but we were lucky enough to have Pantera and EYEHATEGOD.” The band, which has an EP out, recently cut 17 tracks for a future release. He’s also participating in a couple of “doom” projects with a band he can’t yet name, but he describes the music as “grungy, slow rock.” With all that, he continues to write and record on his own, playing guitar, bass and drums, “just creatin’ music as much as I can.”
Meanwhile, the road beckons. “The Reverend Horton Heat said, ‘It must feel good hearin’ the whole audience sing all your lyrics right back atcha.’ That kinda says it all, man. The foundation was there, and for having no video or radio play, Straight to Hell was definitely a landmark. We’ll see what happens with this one.”
And while you’re thinkin’ about III, you gotta check out his MySpace page, especially the slide show, which rotates more than 600 snapshots and images, including his costume from last Halloween (freaky as shit), plenty of ink on pasty skin and a doctored Confederate flag with marijuana leaves in place of the stars and a big, Black Flag-derived “III” smack-dab in the middle. Trust us, you can get lost in this bizarre photo album.
Political correctness prevents us from going into detail about III’s attitude toward Music Row in general or his label situation in particular. “I’ll just let it be and keep it rollin’,” he offers, judiciously. “I’m fuelin’ back up. But first I need to get the drummer.”
Whoever that drummer turns out to be, he’ll definitely be marching to the beat of a different frontman.