HANK WILLIAMS III: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
In country music, the surname “Williams” has become almost a talisman — the mark of a dynasty, and a legacy unto itself. The father, the son, and now the grandson have all blazed their own trails through (and beyond) pure country, telling three very different stories but sharing a musical heritage (and in Hank I and Hank III’s case, an uncanny resemblance). It’s a blessing and a curse that the Williams clan’s youngest scion, one Shelton Hank Williams III, has labored under since the first day he drew breath. When your granddad’s regarded as one of the most important country artists of all time and your daddy’s a whiskey-bent and hellbound multiplatinum outlaw called Bocephus, it takes a lot of balls to pick up a guitar, say “fuck it,” and start writing something entirely different.
Luckily, if there’s one thing Hank III has got in abundance, it’s cojones, and if you’re wondering why you’re on a metal site reading references to the man who wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” here’s your answer: we’re talking about his grandson, the man who single-handedly put the “dick” back in Dixie and does his damnedest to keep the raw, rebellious soul of outlaw country alive. Couple redneck royalty with a youth spent pounding the drums for handcore bands and an enduring penchant for thrash and doom, it’s no wonder that he has set up camp at the crossroads of country and heavy metal. These two seemingly disparate genres have quite a bit more in common that meets the eye, and Hank III’s eclectic repertoire is a product of the creative bent and fuck-you can-do attitude that personifies the best of both. He’s been doing things his way since the early nineties — collaborating with the Melvins and Willie Nelson, playing in Superjoint Ritual and Arson Anthem, recording his own tunes with Assjack and under his own name — and decades later, is showing no signs of slowing down.
With four (!) new albums to promote and an array of tour dates coming up quick, ol’ Hank’s got a lot on his mind, and he was more than happy to let me pick his brain.
“Well we’re losing all the outlaws
that had to stand their ground
and they’re being replaced by these kids
from a manufactured town
And they don’t have no idea
about sorrow and woe
‘Cause they’re all just too damn busy
kissin’ ass on Music Row
So I’m here to put the “dick” in Dixie
and the “cunt” back in country
‘Cause the kind of country I hear nowdays
is a bunch of fuckin’ shit to me…”
– “Dick in Dixie,” Hank III
So, you just announced a new tour. Your live shows are known for being these crazy multi-faceted affairs — three hours of pure Hank that see you veering from country into metal and everything else along the way. Do you ever get older country fans wandering into your shows and being utterly confused when you put down the acoustic and rip into your more extreme stuff?
Well, that used to happen a lot more back in ‘94-’95 and I had to deal with all the problems of that. Nowadays most people know that when they are coming to my show they are coming to see me, they aren’t coming to see a Hank Williams impersonator, they’re not seeing Hank Jr. I have laid enough of a foundation where almost everybody knows that ,yeah the first hour to hour and a half is the country part ,and as the night goes on, I go and do my own thing. It’s how it has always been. Back in the day when I had to play more of the line-dancing boot-scoot’n boogie bars, they would take offense to it. Strangely enough even in places like Seattle, I would have like 20 rednecks waiting for me outside after the show, trying to track me down because I was playing a different kind of music that they didn’t consider country. Working with all these different people, from Buzz from The Melvins to Phillip Anselmo, and all of these other folks, has helped me break down the walls. Now they know that Hank 3 is a little strange and he does a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but all in all he will give you your money’s worth at the show.
Several of your new records feature some pretty special guests – for one, you have Tom Waits, who’s like this mystical minstrel king at this point, singing, then you’ve got T-Roy from Sourvein, and Dave Sherman from Earthride coming in to represent the heavier side of things. How did those come about, and what do you think they added to the recording?
I have a love for that kind of music — the slower stuff, from Pentagram all the way to Black Sabbath to Sleep and on and on and on. I have always enjoyed that sound, and back in the day I used to open for Buzzoven with some of the bands I was in; it just seems like T-Roy and Dave Sherman have both been involved in a lot of kinds of music that we all like. They are famous for their growl, and then you get a different kind of growl with Tom Waits. He has always kind of watched my career from a distance and I think that he has respected the work ethic I bring to the table. We were able to talk for a while about what he would like to do on the record. When I was in San Francisco and I got to meet him and the family, that is what really made a big difference. We had a lot of things in common; we didn’t feel that nervous around each other, it just felt like home. For me being a country multi-genre kind of guy it was the biggest honor I could have, getting Tom Waits on a country record. It was a big deal for me, and to do it on just a handshake – that is hard to come by in the business, that kind of respect.
The long-awaited Slow Southern Steel documentary is finally seeing the light of day, and has been making the rounds on tour with Hail Hornet and Zoroaster. You play a pretty big part in it, and had a lot of interesting things to say on camera. I was wondering what your experience was with that movie, and why you feel like it’s important to get out the story of the Southern metal scene?
I have gotten to know CT over the years and watched him and his crew just kick ass and work really hard. They have done a lot to do what they do. It’s not like they do one tour every now and then. They are working a full time job then going out there and doing the tour then putting all of this effort into that documentary. It seems like the South has got something a little different in music, period, if its doom or country or jazz. I don’t know if it’s because the pace is a lot slower for some people, but the flip side, the south is pretty uptight and intense as well. Maybe it’s because some people have space and the rent is cheaper, so people don’t have to worry about being as cutthroat with the money around here. The passion of the music just sticks out more than in other places.
The movie spent a lot of time discussing the musical influences you guys had growing up in the South, from the blues to gospel, and country of course. It’s always been interesting seeing you go about doing your thing; you’re sort of this missing link between country and metal. They’re two genres that, at the core, have a lot of cross over — they both have this deep-seated identity as the perpetual underdog, bolstered by that independent spirit, the blue-collar roots, and the history of being marginalized and scoffed at by the rest of mainstream society. The music’s very different, but a lot of the ideas are the same – it all comes down to emotion, and after that, it all comes down to the blues. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the two of them?
The love of the music shows first and foremost. Being a drummer, I was always excited by heavier kinds of music, whether it was slow-heavy or fast-heavy, I felt energy from that. What might help bring the two together, if you look back at the history, is look at the singing of rock ’n’ roll before rock ’n’ roll was. They say the first rock song was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets (sings the melody), while Hank Williams was doing the same thing (sings a few bars of “Move It On Over”).He was doing Rock ’n’ roll before it was called that. After the years had gone by and the minds had opened a little bit, Willie started attracting some hippies and bikers and average, everyday guys, then people started listening to Johnny Cash and The Misfits, then it was David Allen Coe and Pantera, then I come along bringing the country show and bringing in the harder stuff. Trying to pay respects to both worlds, as much as I can do what I do. But I think time has helped to break down some of those barriers. Hank Williams being the outsider that he was in music, in general, that just helped him. The people that my heroes have been, from Jello Biafra Henry Rollins to Anselmo, Dale and Buzz, helped me to take it to the next level and not be a one hit wonder. If I was a one hit wonder I don’t think I would be as respected by the fans or my heroes.
Despite those connections, when it’s taken at face value, if you’re up onstage wearing a Warbeast shirt and singing some of your granddad’s old songs, people must get a little confused.
I always think about the kid that is at a metal festival too, who is standing out in the audience. The very first times I got to play at the side stages at Wacken, I put myself in their shoes and I understand that they don’t get me. I have had enough beer bottles and all that shit thrown at me over the years that it just doesn’t faze me anymore. I do what I do, some people like it ,some people don’t but if I am on a metal festival and I am doing a country song and I can see they aren’t digging it then alright, I will put down the acoustic and I will crank up the other side. I am always thinking about them as much. You can’t make everyone happy but I do think about the kid that is out there at a metal festival that might not get it. I try to referee it as much as I can on the stage sometimes.
Do you ever play just play straight up country gigs at home, or do you feel more comfortable in front of a metal crowd nowadays?
If I were just a country guy, it wouldn’t be as cool as it is. If I were just a metal person, it wouldn’t have the character that it does. I do get asked sometimes to play family-oriented shows and I know when to pay respects when respects are due, but I will let them know what they are getting. It’s just like how in NYC, we have this show coming up, and it is supposed to be just Attention Deficit Domination and 3 Bar Ranch. It puts me on edge a little bit to limit myself because I don’t want the fans to feel like they are being ripped off. As long as they know they are coming to see the 2 heavier bands that is fine, but if I have 250 people who are wanting to hear the country, then it puts me in a bad spot. Once in a while I do just a country show at an old school Nashville spot or if it’s for a certain family on their farm or something, but most of the time I have had to fight for people to say, no, I just want Hank to be himself, because that is what I have had to fight for twenty-plus years on the road. It has that diversity and can’t be pigeonholed into just one corner.
You do have that kind of legacy to work with. I mean, your last name is Williams, and you play country music. I guess that’s hard to escape.
It’s just what I do. It’s a part of my show. I mean, when jazz musicians are doing different genres, they aren’t stopping to think about all of the in-betweens, it is just free form. A lot of my songs ring true with a lot of my fans and I care about my fans. It is really important for me to play at a cheap ticket price and make sure I put on the best show I can for them.
What does your dad think of your music?
Well, he never… most parents aren’t supposed to understand what their kids are listening to. So back when I was sixteen, I am the reason that Suicidal Tendencies and Fishbone are in his “Young Country” video. I’m the reason that he met Van Halen and they did a video together. I would always show up and play Anthrax to the band and say “listen to this drummer doing this and this guitarist playing this fast.” They are not supposed to understand this. He used to make fun of me a little bit. He had one song that said, “our hair is not orange and our chains aren’t spikes,” you can pull that up on YouTube but even back then I was hooked on hardcore, punk rock and heavy metal. That’s back when the first blast beats were really starting to come through. I always wanted to show up at a sound check and play a song at Immortal’s kind of speed. It was something I always wanted to do, and I’m doing it now.
How did you get into punk rock in the first place?
This radio station in Atlanta that was a college station — I still have my cassette tape where I would record the radio shows and they would play all the standards, Sex Pistols, Suicidal Tendencis, GBH, Cro-Mags little bit of everything, but 88.5 in Atlanta is what got me on my way. I still have bands that I don’t know who they are and I have sat down with Mike Williams and Phillip Anselmo asking “do you have any idea who this band is?” because I want to go buy their shit. That radio station set me on my way as far as that sound. I was always into Ted Nugent and ZZ Top, Kiss and Queen and all the standard rock but I found the thing furthest from country music and fell in love with it. That’s a normal rebellious thing to do. Being a drummer on top of that, it was a natural fit for me.
How long have you been playing drums?
I got my first kit when I was six years old. I got a Kiss record, a drum kit and a Walt Disney record and that is what sent me on my way, really. The first time I was on stage I was nine or ten at the Fox theater in Atlanta playing “Family Tradition” behind Hank Jr. I’ve gotten to play drums with Hank Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd before. On my last four records I did all the drum work. I just have fun with it. I don’t understand any music theory but I know how to write songs and record them, mix them and master them. I don’t really understand how it works. Misfits, Black Flag and all kinds of stuff is how I learned how to play guitar and play drums, so I started off with Heart, Queen and Ted Nugent playing along with headphones. That was the best teacher I had, to play along with other music. But I still kind of wish my mom had forced me to take piano lessons. I guess if you don’t know what you are doing you can kind of come up with something new and not even realize it.
Are you still playing drums for Arson Anthem?
Every now and then. I will be playing with them at Hellfest on June 15 .I will play drums that day and do my show later that night. I will be getting back in there; it will be tough for me, the balance. I don’t care if I am playing drums or guitar or whatever, the first couple of days being off the plane my balance is just fucked up over there. That will be a challenge for me to just do it. I have done it before I have played in almost five different bands, once with Arson Anthem in one night, so it can be done. Me and Jimmy Bower might be the only two guys that have pulled off those kinds of records.
How do you take care of yourself? When you go on the road, you play such a complicated set. Do you try to stay super healthy or are you used to the grind by now?
I am kind of used to it, but I still get sick every tour. I have had guys come up to me at clubs that are like “man, you are still sick.” It just is what it is but I have had to pace myself for the stage. I have saved my partying for the stage. If I drank, did every line and smoked every joint I wouldn’t fucking be able to do my show for the fans. I always lose my voice and get sick every tour. It’s just part of it. I think a lot of it has to do with shaking all the hands after the show. All that stuff. I am trying to hang in there as long as I can. In time, I might have to switch things up and only play an hour and a half but I have the rest of my life to do that, I tell myself for now.
As you mentioned, you have these four records you put out on your own label, Hank3 Records; it’s a ton of material, and what’s most remarkable is how different each record is. You’ve got the all country double album, you’ve got the sludgier, more metallic ADD stuff, and then you have this crazy cattle calling/speed metal hybrid, which I’m sure threw a lot of people for a loop because it’s definitely never been done before. How did you come up with that idea?
I was raised on a cattle farm with my granddad in the summer time and he would always take me to the auctions in barns. I was always fascinated by the speed of the auctioneer. I always thought the speed of heavy metal and speed of the auctioneer would be a good fit. The tough blow was that I lost most of my fastest auctioneers. 60% of them pulled out on me after the music was done. Hats off to people like Mitch Jordan, Tim Dowler from Canada, Joe Goggins all of these people that said “Sure, man. Go for it. You are offering inspiration to young auctioneers in a different kind of way.” Some of the really, really, really fast guys really didn’t feel comfortable with it because a lot of those dudes don’t smoke, don’t drink. I told them “you’re not going to like the music. You’re not going to understand it but I’m not making fun of your industry. I am being dead serious about this.” It just seemed like a good fit for it and me just something a little different for the metal world. Some people get it, some people don’t. It was songs like “Mad Cow” that for me as a player, doing that pushed me to a whole level of experimentation. I have a lot of fun with it live, out of the road.
Are you going to do more records like that or was it more of a one off?
No, I will definitely be doing another one. I think in time I might be able to get more of the fast auctioneers that I wasn’t able to use on this one because they understand that I am doing. They know that I am trying to be respectful to them. When I say there is no cussing’ on that record it is because I gave my word to a guy who said “Well, If I’m going to be on that record there can’t be any cussing’.” I said “I can do that, I can do a record without a cuss word on it if you will let me work with you.” It’s a pretty small world out there and that’s why I lost so many guys that one time. But Tim and Mitch Jordan made up for it.
Is that still a thriving industry? Are there young people learning to be auctioneers nowadays, or is it mostly older guys still hanging on?
Well it is a little bit of both. It used to be 200 people going into an auction barn, and now it’s 4-5 people in the barn and most of the others looking at the cattle on computers. It’s done a little differently nowadays. But on RFD TV, at least once a week there is about 4 hours of auctioning going on. It’s still alive. It’s just one of those things that, as long as there is cattle and farms out there it will still be happening. I’ve branded cows, I’ve milked cows, and I have had to drag the dead ones off to the side of the field. I have been around it a good bit, so it’s just another good reason why it was a natural fit for me.
What are you listening to right now?
It’s all over the place. It’s not really metal but I have always listened to Karp from day one. I have said it over and over but Immortal, Pentagram. Lately I have been listening to a lot of 70’s rock like Blue Cheer, and The Killed By Death compilation, a lot of compilation records to find some bands I might not have known about, and also a bunch of stuff from the road that most people haven’t even heard of.
Is there anything coming out of Nashville, country-wise, that you think is worth listening to at this point?
Well I am pretty disconnected with what is happening. I watch YouTube; I listen to my old vinyls and CDs. I just try to keep my tour and my crew together. The only guy I know that is out there and bringing it true out of Nashville is Bob Wayne. He is a friend of mine and he has been busting his ass out there. He is someone working through a lot of the metal folks who also has that country twang. Bob and I have that respect there. He is about the only person that I know really. I’m sure there are a lot of others but I’m not really out and about. The only time I’m out is to go see a band and that’s like Earthride or Jucifer or Sourvein or High on Fire; if any of that stuff that is coming to town I will go to the show.
My weird streak in me runs towards Gary Numan, Adam Ant, Blondie — I do listen to some of that stuff. I was raised it with it. Gary Numan was the first 45 I bought, Adam Ant was the first big live performance I ever saw. They have the longevity thing: Adam Ant kept his voice, Iggy Pop has kept his voice, Blondie sounds good, Joan Jet still sounds good. I am always looking at it like, how do I keep hanging in there? Then you’ve got Lemmy or Willie Nelson, all of those people help to defy those odds.
Is there anything else you want to add?
If they want to see the tour dates, check out Hank3.com. If people want to get any merch or CDs they can get it there straight from me and my mom, either one of us will be packing it up and shipping it out. If we are playing in a town near you, be sure to be on time because I am going to be opening up for myself, and it is going to be a long show!
Kim Kelly (or Grim Kim, if we’re being formal) scribbles for a number of sweet metal publications (Terrorizer, Brooklyn Vegan, Invisible Oranges, Hails & Horns, and tons more), promotes wicked records with Catharsis PR, and road dogs for your favorite bands. Keep up with her exploits & numerous band recommendations on Twitter, or peep her blog Ravishing Grimness.