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Hank Williams III: Country Ass Kicker

by Travis Becker

Ask the average metalhead what they think of country and you're likely to hear some four letter words. Then ask them what they think of Hank Williams III and it all changes and the term 's*** kicking' become 'ass kicking'. This month Travis tells us why that is and how Hank III is kicking ass and taking names with his new album and tour, and representing his proud family name to a lot more than just country fans. 

The New Album: Straight to Hell Review 

People fear things they can't understand. Anything puzzling or out of the norm poses big problems for certain people, and the good old boy establishment that now rules Nashville with a pair of iron boots represent the epitome of "certain people". Hank Williams III represents just that sort of problem-causing enigma. With a family tree like that of Hank Williams III, expectations are bound to be in place for the kind of music one would be expected to make. Hank III has spent his young career spitting in the face of those expectations while at the same time upholding the legacy of his grandfather and the country outlaws that came after him. On his new 2 CD set, Straight to Hell, Hank III makes his stand firmly on the side of Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe and makes it known that the pop-with-a-fiddle churned out by Nashville is not his country music and shouldn't be anyone's. With a sound that owes as much to rock and punk as traditional country, Hank III truly arrives with this album, having harnessed his own unique musical vision and freed himself of the reins holding him back on previous efforts. 

If you listen to country radio nowadays, you will not hear songs with explicit sexual or drug-related references. You won't hear profanity or vocals with even the least bit of edge or world-weariness to them. If that doesn't sound very appealing, then Hank III is the country artist for you. Williams has gathered an interesting following over the years, an eclectic mix of curious punks and metalheads, country traditionalists, and whoever else happens to show up at his endless concert dates throughout the country. This record isn't so much an extension of Hank III's rock leanings, though. People anxious for an album reminiscent of his work with Phil Anselmo's Superjoint Ritual will be disappointed. This is straight ahead country music, and while the attitude may be informed somewhat by rock and roll and punk, the stand up bass and fiddles quickly dispel any notion that this is a rock record. 

The lap steel that punctuates "Things You Do to Me" and the lyrics detailing the woman that got away and the drinking that follows sounds like pretty cut and dry, cliché country, but the sneer is evident in III's lyrical stylings. Hank III's voice is much closer to the high twang of his grandfather than that of his boisterous father and the loneliness and feeling inject the songs with a feeling of loss and sadness that no production tricks ever could. "Thrown Out of the Bar" and "Country Heroes" pay tribute to the artists that got Williams to where he is now and lament the loss of the country outlaw. "Low Down" bounces and jaunts along as a rolling country ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on a Marshall Tucker record. The lyrics, however, stick to familiar subject matter for III-the wild, self destructive life style he embraces so enthusiastically. While drugs and debauchery rule the day, things never get too heavy, and songs like "My Drinkin Problem" and "The Pills I Took" recall Johnny Paycheck, Coe, or even the early humorous songs of Dr. Hook. "Crazed Country Rebel" throws an absolute middle finger in the face of the squeaky clean image of modern Nashville with its tales of drugs and drifting. It's country alright, but not today's country. 

Whatever shackles previously held Williams back are now completely broken on Straight to Hell as he revels in profanity and glorious depravity. What were subtle jabs at Nashville and "pop-country" music on 2002's Lovesick, Broke and Driftin' become straight rights to the bridge of the nose on Straight to Hell. Williams takes Nashville to task with the explicit lyrics of "Dick in Dixie" and the plain and simple message of "Not Everybody Likes Us." He's never been shy about his dislike for the pro-tooled, teeny-bopper country Nashville cranks out, but on this record he lets loose. So much so, the "amended" version listed on his label's parent company, Curb's, website deletes two songs completely with more pointed references to Nashville's current state. Perhaps the biggest affront to the cookie-cutter sound he so detests is the 42 minute epic on the second disc, which contains more than a half dozen songs (including his first cover of a Hank Sr. song) mixed in with strange sound effects, evangelical preaching, and animal noises all mashed up together in a big soupy, trippy, good old time. Johnny Cash would have been proud. 

It's clear that Hank III wants no part of the half-assed rebelliousness of certain new country acts, or those in country who think consorting with rocks acts is enough to buy them some legitimacy. Particularly amusing is his bitchslap-in-song to Kid Rock on "Not Everybody Likes Us," in which III croons, "Just so you know/So its set in Stone/Kid Rock don't come from where I come from/yeah its true he's a yank/he ain't no son a' Hank/and if you thought so/god damn you're f***in dumb." I guess he won't be joining them for Thanksgiving. In that same song he sings about a "certain kinda living". That's what separates Hank III from every other country act out there, it's easy to believe that he lives what he sings and he means every note of it. This is the country album for everyone who thinks they hate country music. For everyone that misses Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash every time they hear a new Toby Keith song. If country is more than a big smile and a big hat to you, than Hank III is writing for you. Recommended.

The Hank III Live Ass Kicking!
Richmond, VA 6 April 2006

Unity music-Operation Ivy sang about it and Bob Marley sang about it, but either of those artists would have a tough time drawing as diverse a crowd as the one that showed up when Hank Williams III played Alley Katz in Richmond, Virginia last Thursday. Mohawks and Cowboy hats, old men and young girls, bespectacled Emo kids and square-headed frat boys, they were all there taking in a marathon performance from Country music's most interesting and unpredictable character. It's true, by the end of the set some of these people were trying to annihilate each other in front of the stage, but all in good fun. After over three hours and God knows how many cans of PBR, when Hank III finally left the stage, a good many of those diverse people probably had a whole new appreciation for at least one new kind of music. 

A short set by III's guitar tech, Bob Wayne and his band, the Outlaw Carnies, opened the show. Featuring a standup bass and Wayne's storytelling delivery, the half-hour's worth of cowboy songs and rough-around-the-edges Country-Western swing elicited appreciation for a large crowd chomping at the bit for Hank III. Clad in black with a bright red bandana wrapped around his head, Wayne tore into numbers like "Ghost Town" and "Tellin Lies" and seemed to channel the spirit of the man in black's fun side if not quite his low slung baritone. 

When Hank Williams III finally got to the stage, the crowd had swelled even further, so that even getting close enough to the stage to see him proved a challenge. Wearing a black vest full of pot leaf and metal band patches and the most desiccated cowboy boys that could possibly still serve their purpose, Hank chatted casually with the crowd as the first part of the set began. He even dedicated the song "Thrown Out of the Bar" to the people who had already been thrown out, as he said, "Don't worry, happens to the best of us." The first hour or more of the performance featured songs from Williams' new album, Straight to Hell and his prior release, Lovesick Broke and Driftin. Rife with outlaw anthems like "Crazed Country Rebel", "Smoke and Wine" and "Mississippi Mud", Williams had the crowd energized and rocking. His own acoustic guitar accented a honky tonking performance by his backing band, the Damn Band. Steel guitar, standup bass, and a little fiddle here and there created a big sound in the small hall, but they never missed a note. Even though his hat looked like it had been flattened by a dump truck, Hank III filled the room and everything in it with energy and his appreciation of his audience was unmatched by any one else touring today. 

As the Country set wound down, III replaced his acoustic guitar with an electric and literally let his hair down as his other band, Assjack joined him on the stage. With a different singer and all electric instruments, Assjack roared on the stage with a mixture of hardcore punk and thrash that had even the most mild-mannered Country fans jumping up and tearing the place apart. Assjack's set was closer to the music III is famous for making in collaboration with Superjoint Ritual with blast beats sending tremors through the floor and a moshpit that threatened to break loose into a full scale riot on more than one occasion. Sporting a Misfits t-shirt, Hank Williams III appropriately covered that band's staple, "Death Comes Ripping" and did an amazing job of it. By the time the stage diving and guitar dismantling riffs were done, the entire audience that remained from the beginning was left breathless and exhausted. 

Who says you have to pick a sound you're good at and stick with it? Hank Williams III clearly maintains the opinion that you should showcase as many types of music as you're interested in. He praised the remaining crowd for keeping an open mind, but it's Williams who deserves praise for sticking to his guns and playing the music he wants to play no matter what any one else tells him. In one of the classiest moves of any act I've seen, he remained at the edge of stage after he finished playing, shook hands, and talked with everyone who came up to see him. Who says you can't love Johnny Cash and love Slayer just as much? If you're one of the many who do, and Hank Williams III comes to your town, make sure you're there, and come as you are. 


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