"Boy, you sing like your granddaddy"

Hank Williams III pays a debt to Nashville -- and looks toward Texas for real country music.

By David Bowman

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Hank Williams III's new album, "Risin' Outlaw," is as derivative of Johnny
Cash as Hank Williams Sr. You think you've heard it all before, but the disc wins
you over by the end. This kid once played hardcore punk, but now
he's as authentically honky-tonk as his grandfather was, singing about
tonk basics like drinkin', cheatin', sin and redemption and death. "Most of the
older people who come to see us start cryin'," the 26-year-old says
on the phone from a trailer outside Nashville. "They say, 'Boy, you sing like
your granddaddy.'"

Hank Williams Sr., the honky-tonk god of country music, wrote and
sang standards like "Your Cheatin' Heart." He drank and drugged himself to death at 29, suffering a heart attack on the way to a gig on New Year's 1953. His son, Hank
Jr., who was 4 at the time, became his own brand of country rebel in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the music's biggest stars throughout the 1980s.

Performances are one thing, but don't talk about Hank III's new record. It sucks
bigtime. "It's weird," he says. "People come up to me and say, 'Oh, your
album kicks ass.' It don't. I just can't get behind it. I'm already looking
forward to the second album."

Huh? "Risin' Outlaw" has great picking. Williams does a great cover of Johnny Cash's
"Cocaine Blues." Then on Wayne Hancock's "Thunderstorms & Neon Signs," Hank
III's voice whines as ghostly as his granddaddy's. What's wrong with the
disk? It's not honky-tonk enough.

"It's a Nashville record," he explains, his voice thick with scorn. "Everything that's done in this town gets ruined. If you're gonna use a $100,000 studio and the
best equipment and all these players and this and that, it's not gonna sound
pure. It's gonna sound slick. Me and my producer had a big fall out. We went
around and around and around and around. And then he left. That's the way it
goes, I guess."

He pauses. "The way they do their vocal tracks at Curb [his
label], is they make me sing each song fuckin' 60 times in a row. No
matter if I think that's the best vocal cut in the world. Then they take
little snippets and words out of each take. If a record is done the way it
should be done, it's cut live with two mikes."

Merle Haggard gave a similar complaint about Curb three years ago. "Record
live?" Hag said in the back of his tour bus as it rolled through New Jersey.
"Of course it's better. Don't matter what damn thing I want with Curb. Record
live or dead." Then he laughed, "Man, you should have heard the record I made
back when I was dead ..."

Hank III laughs too when he hears this. "If we ever recorded live, we'd scare
off every fuckin' producer in this town. It's all, 'Radio ain't gonna touch
that. It sounds too thin. It has to sound fat.'"

What it sounds like
is Hank III has kicked some desks around. "I have. Every time I've dealt with
Curb, I've been told one thing and then been stabbed in the back. They're people I
don't trust. They've never gotten behind me. Every time I've gotten in
Rolling Stone, I did that. I rub it in their face. 'What other act of
yours got in Rolling Stone twice without an album? We're the ones
beatin' the street without your support.'"

Why asked if his father, Hank "Monday Night Football" Williams Jr., supports
his son's record, Hank III says, "I've only heard him say that he's proud.
I'm sure that he didn't want me into this kind of business." Has Hank III
ever played with his pop? "No." He's apparently forgotten the sorry
record they did called "Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts," with Hank Sr.

"The first guy I ever dueted with was George Jones," Hank III volunteers. "He wanted to do a
Hank Williams song. 'You sound so much like your granddaddy, it scares me!'
I'm pretty sure we did 'I'm So Lonesome I could Cry.' That was a real cool
moment to me. To be able to say the first guy I ever sang onstage with was
George Jones." He pauses. "Like I say: Waylon, George Jones, Hag, Willie
Nelson. We got respect from all these older guys. We just don't have respect
from people in the business. What they do is pop country. If you ever saw us
live, you'd understand."

I point out that three songs on the record, including one about the devil, were written by someone named Shelton Williams. Who's he?

"Me," Hank III replies. "All the Hanks have first names. Hiram Hank
Williams Sr. Randall Hank Williams. And then Shelton Hank Williams III." He pauses. "Why the hell they put me as 'Shelton Williams' is another
thing I don't understand. Friends call me Shelton. People in the business
call me Hank."

If Nashville is so evil, there must be an alternative-country Emmylou
/Jimmie Dale Gilmore empire somewhere in America?

"Well, there is," Williams answers. "Austin. Everything is happening in that town.
You have a million studios and a million producers. One of my biggest quotes
is 'I'd rather have the respect of Texas than Tennessee any day.' That's why
I'm so insecure about this album because I know I'm not going to get the
respect from the guys I know in Texas."

Is he sure? "I'm positive," Hank III
answers with a dry laugh. "I'm talking about true purists. True country guys.
Pickers. Players. Like Wayne "The Train" Hancock. Dale Watson. I've been tryin'
and tryin' to get out of this town because this town is dragging me down. I
just can't afford to move to Austin." Why not? "Child support," he confesses.
"A one-night-stand waited three years to tell me I had a kid. Her dad's a
cop. The judge slaps me with $26,000 in debt. I was 20 years old.
Scary shit, you know."

At least Hank III gets out of Nashville to tour as well as visit important
sites haunted by his grandfather's ghost. Last year, they stopped at the West
Virginia country gas station where Hank Sr. was found slumped dead in the
back of his car by his chauffeur.

"The gas station is on a two-lane road. I
started hearin' the stories about the service manger who'd been workin' the
pumps. While Hank's driver was callin' the police that Hank was dead, the
service guy went in the backseat and took Hank's hat and pistol out of the
car. The guy later said every time he wore my granddaddy's hat bad things
would happen. His hair would fall out. The guy ended up blowing his head off
with my granddaddy's gun."

Hank III pauses, then speculates, "If Hank
Williams had lived he might have been the most hated man in the world, because
of being as cocky as he was about his songwriting and singing. Hell, he was
29 and he was as mature as a 45-year-old. I think he knew that he was going to
die. He wrote 'I'll Never Get out of This World Alive.'"

The same can be said about his grandson. Hank III is notorious for
worshipping pills, booze and reefer. "I did a rehab thing not too long ago,"
he reveals. "And they were trying to get Steve Earle down there to talk to
me. But I kept puttin' him off. He probably has opinions about me or
whatever. No matter what I'm into I'll never be as hardcore as he got with
all those needles and shit. He took it out to the bottom. I have a 1,000 percent respect for that guy, but I just don't know if he respects
me. But he did it and he's kicking ass and still putting out great music and
still in the scene. Good thing."

At the call's end, Hank III is given a good-natured warning: "Watch out for
that lost highway now."

"All right, man," Hank III says. "I'm just young right now. I'm not going to
kill myself. I promise." Then he adds wistfully, "The Lord is going to make
me suffer too much. He's going to keep me here a long time."

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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