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Son of a Gun, Take III
Hank Williams III is making a name for himself as the outlaw of Nashville--with an untamed lifestyle to match that of his famous father and grandfather.
By MICHAEL McCALL
NASHVILLE--Every time Hank Williams III steps onto a honky-tonk stage, two things happen: Someone will bring him a drink, and someone will challenge him on his name and on his talent. Heís got a ready response for both.
"Thereís always that guy who walks up while Iím singing and gives me the first shot, and Iíll always pick it up and shoot it right down," says the gaunt, intense, 26-year-old Williams, who bears a striking physical resemblance to his famous grandfather.
"That will always get the biggest crowd response of the night. Then Iíll hold up the empty glass and say, íThank you for applauding my addiction!í "
As for the challenge to his name, Williams tells them to do the research. "Itís right there on my birth certificate, íShelton Hank Williams III,í " he says. "Itís not fake."
As he explains, no one in his bloodline ever carried a name as straightforward as Hank Williams. His grandfather, the most celebrated figure in country music history, was named Hiram Hank Williams.
His father, who came to embody the cross between country music and Southern rock, was named Randall Hank Williams, although by age 8 he was performing under the name Hank Williams Jr.
Hank the Third or Hank Three, as his record company calls him, has become one of the most talked about newcomers on the Nashville recording scene, thanks to his debut album, "Risiní Outlaw," which came out in September on Curb Records, the home of LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw.
Closer in tone to the raw-boned í50s honky-tonk of his grandfather than to the electrified Southern rock of his father, the album has found favor among music critics and alternative-country fans. "This is what rockiní country is supposed to sound like," summarizes veteran country music critic John Morthland on Amazon.com.
"When you hear him and see him, it reminds you of Hank Williams," says Mike Curb, the label president who signed him to his recording contract nearly three years ago. "Itís interesting, because it makes you ask the question, if Hank Williams Sr. were starting out today, how would he be received? Where would he get his records played?"
In performance, Williams is even more unrefined and raucous than on his album. Strumming an acoustic guitar with a fiercely rhythmic downstroke, he sings in a clenched, astringent tenor in front of a stripped-down band that merges the fiery string music of í30s country bands with the steel-and-fiddle honky-tonk of postwar performers such as Webb Pierce and Williamsí grandfather.
Williams--who plays Feb. 3 at Lindaís Doll Hut in Santa Ana--is beginning to prove heís doing more than trading on a famous family name.
"I got some ideas that can move what Iím doing into something thatís wilder and more me," he says. "I got a lot of just crazy-fast, cowpunk songs that could be really cool. I think thereís something about what Kid Rock is doing that could maybe go over in a hillbilly kind of way, but Iíve got to find the right producer to make it work."
Meanwhile, as his music stokes interest in this Gen-X version of Hank Williams, the story of his life thatís starting to surface suggests that his tale is as tangled as those of the previous Hanks.
"Man, itís tough following up your father and your grandfather in the same business," says Merle Kilgore, a í50s country performer and songwriter who has managed Hank Williams Jr. for two decades. "Good god--his father and grandfather are legends! But Sheltonís really pursuing it, and heís got something, I think."
As Hank IIIís personal trials become known, the implication rises that maybe every generation gets the Hank Williams it deserves--or at least one who reflects the personal struggles of the young, white, working-class Southerners they come to represent.
The first-generation Hank dealt with fighting for dignity while living in abject poverty in the Deep South in the aftermath of World War II, when America became more industrialized and urban, when women began to enjoy more freedoms, and when men faced the conflicting forces of a religious upbringing and the worldly temptations now increasingly presented to them.
Hank Jr., who had his first hits in the í60s and found his artistic persona in the í70s, found himself growing his hair longer and falling under the influence of rock íní roll while trying to move beyond the imposing shadow of the conservative, buttoned-down life his fatherís generation handed to him.
Meanwhile, Hank III has dealt with his own set of trials.
He is the son of Gwen Williams, Hank Jr.ís second wife. The two were divorced when Shelton was in elementary school. His mother remarried when he was 11 and they moved to Atlanta, then spent time in North Carolina before returning to Nashville when he was 15. That year, in eighth grade, he was kicked out of the private Brentwood Academy. Afterward, he was found to suffer from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. He attended public schools after that, graduating when he was 19.
Heís maintained mostly long-distance contact with his mother, who moved to California a year before he graduated. As for his father, he says, "Growing up I didnít see him much, but I can see why. He was drinking and drugging and being with women. . . . I got to go out on the road with him a couple of times, but after a while you could tell he didnít want me around, that I was getting in his way."
These days, he says, "Itís not like weíre hanging out or nothing like that. Itís more of a íHey, whatís up?í kind of thing. . . . There will always be a little bit of a weirdness there."
Musically, he graduated from listening to the hard rock of KISS and Ted Nugent as a kid to finding release in the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits and other hard-core punk-rock radicals who presented an aggressive combination of rebellion, idealism and biting social sarcasm.
Then, almost begrudgingly, he evolved into a fan of cowpunk and alternative-country bands.
"When I first got into country, I just wanted to see how much [expletive] money I could make," says Williams.
"I always thought I would go back to punk rock and do what I was doing before. But then I heard Wayne Hancock, this kid whose writing and music sounded just like Hank Williams to me. He opened my horizons up to this whole thing about taking it back to what itís supposed to be. He got me inspired about all this."
For the interview, Shelton Williams sits chain-smoking cigarettes in his frontyard on the hood of a beige, 1960 Cadillac, complete with chrome grill and exaggerated tail fins. Two other late-model Cadillacs sit in the driveway. Despite the fancy cars, the house and the yard are far from upscale. Theyíre actually far from comfortable. The home is a large í50s bungalow nestled at a residential intersection in a working-class, inner-city neighborhood known as East Nashville.
The home is in disrepair, and the yard is filled with old cars, some that run and some that donít. Inside, the floors and walls appear to have been ignored for years, and the rooms are packed with stage gear, ashtrays, empty bottles and fast-food sacks.
"Thereís four of us here now," Williams says, sitting outside in a skintight, ribbed-cotton tank top thatís tucked into baggy, thrift-shop slacks. "That gets the rent down to $137 a month each. It makes a difference. It helps keep us going."
He resides across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville, a divide that separates moneyed Nashville from those who provide the cityís labor. Heís far from the polished office buildings that have popped up on Nashvilleís Music Row in the wake of the country music boom of the í90s, and heís even farther from the enormous suburban multilevel residences and expansive farms that most modern country artists call home.
Hank III feels at least as far away creatively too. As with the family patriarchs who preceded him, he maintains an uneasy alliance with the Nashville power structure. They embrace him, and they praise his musical efforts. But he doesnít trust them, and heís outspoken in his criticism of the Nashville music industry at large and of the record company he works with.
Williams grants that Curb Records is a bit renegade by Nashville standards. "I mean, they signed me, and I donít think anybody else wouldíve done that," he says. Still, he thinks the response heís received from critics and from his live show should inspire more support than the label has given him.
Mike Curb knows Williams isnít happy. "He says what he believes, and thatís one of the great things about him," Curb says. "A lot of new artists are afraid to speak their minds, but he wants people to know who he is. Heís certainly straightforward."
Curb also acknowledges that Williams may have good reason to criticize the label for its level of financial commitment at this point.
"I feel like heís right," Curb says, noting that "Risiní Outlaw" has done well on the Americana chart, which logs roots- and folk-oriented acts such as Lyle Lovett and Junior Brown. Total sales so far for the album are minuscule, though: 6,800.
"I mean, I feel weíve given him tremendous support, but I also feel more support is needed," Curb says. "Right now weíre trying to figure out where to focus that support. Thereís been resistance to him at mainstream country radio, so weíre in the process of figuring out where to concentrate our efforts on him so that it will be most effective."
The label has supported him in other ways as well. Last March, Curb executives helped engineer an intervention to force Williams into rehabilitation. Among those who took part were Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr.
"I finally just told Waylon and my dad, íLook, you have to give me time to max out,í " Williams says. " íIím just doing the same thing you [expletives] did. Iím going to keep a limit on it a little bit. Iíll be OK. And once I find that . . . great gal out there, if I havenít damaged my health too much, I can clean up and stick around.í "
Hank IIIís sobriety was brief.
These days, Williams still drinks regularly, still smokes pot and still occasionally takes harder drugs
, for which the long term effects can be devastating.
But not as much as he once did, he says.
Curb, who initially contended in a phone interview that Williams is now sober, pauses after hearing that Williams spoke of continuing to drink and do drugs. "I think a personís life is more important than a hit record," Curb says. "But I feel like Sheltonís doing great right now. I think heís going to be around a long time, and heís going to be a force in music."
Says Williams, "Iím going to do whatever the hell I want, and they know it. Thatís part of whatís getting the buzz out about me, that Iím defying Nashville or whatever you want to call it. But all I want to do is make the music I hear in my head. Hopefully, Iíll get some respect for what Iím doing and theyíll realize that Iím on to something that a lot of people, old and young, will like."
Michael McCall is a freelance writer based in Nashville