Hank Williams (1923-1953) died in the back seat of his Cadillac on his way to a gig in Canton, Ohio. Hank Williams, Jr. was three. By the time he was eight, his mother pushed him out on stages singing his daddy’s songs. Ultimately, he rebelled and came into his own by writing his own damn songs. Then he fell 500 feet, face first into solid rock… and survived. When he took me up in his private airplane, he told me about his own three year old son, Shelton, who was already playing drums.
Flash-Forward 21 years later and I’m in Phil Anselmo’s house in the swamps of Louisiana on a SuperJoint Ritual junket. The bass player is Shelton, or Hank Williams III, or Hank 3. He’s smoking a lot of pot but, despite my questions, won’t talk about his daddy or his grandpa. “We’re here to talk about SuperJoint Ritual,” he instructs as he rolls another fat one.
Flash-Forward another nine years and I’m in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at Crocodile Rock, standing in the middle of hundreds of rowdy drunken 20-something white males jostling for position to see Hank 3 sing his wickedly profane originals about popping pills, getting drunk and saying fuck you to the Nashville establishment.
“So I’m here to put the dick in Dixie and the cunt back in country/ Cause the kind of country I hear nowadays is a bunch of fuckin’ shit to me/ They say that I’m ill-mannered, that I’m gonna self-destruct/ But if you know what I’m thinkin’/
you’ll know that pop-country really sucks.” —“Dick In Dixie”
The crowd is nearly apoplectic. They’re like a cross between a Slayer and a ZZ Top crowd. I’m getting slammed on my right by some big galoot whose beer keeps spilling. The band is so loud in this overflowing small room with low ceilings that when the fiddle player takes his solo, it feels like a razor blade across my forehead. I’m thinking this must be what hell is like. Hank’s singing Kris Kristofferson’s “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams, You Can Kiss My Ass,” only he’s singing it to the tune of “Ghost Riders In The Sky.” He does The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” and a few more originals including “Pills I Took,” which elicits wild shrieks of joy. The show is long. After the country set, he goes into his “Hellbilly” routine, harder, faster, takes a break, and comes back with his doom metal set. The musical schizophrenia also flowers on his four new CDs, released on the same day, and on his own damn label (after 15 torturous years on Curb): Hank 3’s Attention Deficit Domination, Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown (with guest appearances by Tom Waits and Les Claypool of Primus) and Cattle Callin’ (a new sub-genre of metal: 45 minutes of fast-talkin’ auctioneers used as vocals over grindcore).
Still, for all his rough and rowdy ways, he’s got that voice, the voice that partly made his grandfather the patron saint of country music. And he’s the split image of ol’ Hank, too. His poignant rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (which he’s never played live) will raise goosebumps. “It’s always fun,” he answers when I ask him about that. “It doesn’t matter what record I’m on. I’m payin’ respects, man. It could be The Melvins or Reverend Horton Heat, I’ll completely do the song different. Most people redo the songs on tribute albums under the same structure. You’ll notice I did it different and a lot of people didn’t like it. For me, to be involved with someone like Bruce was definitely an honor and it put me out there to a lot of fans who probably never would have known I existed. That’s a very special song to me.”
Hank 3’s involved in a campaign to get his grandfather re-inducted into The Grand Ole Opry. Back then, because of a painful back condition, Hank had to gobble painkillers by the handful and his booze problem didn’t help. The Opry kicked him out and told him to straighten up before they’d let him back in. But he died. Hank Williams lyrics are etched in the pain he suffered on a daily basis. Back then, the medical establishment hadn’t yet discovered that pills and booze are lethal.
Sadly, Hank 3 and Hank, Jr. are estranged. Hank 3 has his own son to worry about. Hank Jr. has a new family. The royal family of country music may be a little dysfunctional (both Hanks have country-singing sisters who they pay no mind to) but we’re all the richer for their existence.