It's a pitiful but true fact that the current generation has no country outlaw to call its own. With Cash and Jennings mired in eternal sleep, no one has yet filled their boots. Which is why proud antiestablishmentarian, self-professed redneck and the consummate crusty punk Hank III may just be the outlaw we've been waiting for.
In many ways, the Nashville music establishment remains the outpost of tight-rectum prudery it was when the Grand Ole Opry banished Rose Maddox and her scandalous costuming. (And the whole place is still collecting the bricks it shat when Neko Case played in her bra in 2004.) Not since Johnny Cash flipped the whole town the bird has an artist's relationship with the Music Row coterie been so cantankerous as Hank III's.
Spurred by a $45,000 child-support obligation, Williams made his commercial recording debut in 1996 on Three Hanks: Men With Broken Hearts, featuring himself, his father and late grandfather singing in concert. Williams Sr. appeared courtesy of digital manipulation, and it was a debacle that Hank III says he hasn't even listened to himself. Since then there have been pissing matches (legal and otherwise)-including his infamous "Fuck Curb" campaign, a rail against his record label-and only two more albums, the latest being Straight to Hell.
"It's all about lawyers, that's it-who can make up the most bullshit," Williams scoffs. "Nobody can do anything on a handshake anymore."
Whereas everyone in mainstream Nashville scatters like cockroaches from anything remotely controversial, Williams welcomes it with middle fingers extended. At 33 he's already well-acquainted with rehab clinics and jail cells; neither confinement nor federal probation have dampened his enthusiasm for bongloads and booze.
"Meth is killing America, not pot," Hank says, blaming the misconception on "fuckin' uptight, Bible Belt, whoever-the-fuck-they-are assholes. I stay away from them kind as much as I can." But as the Man in Black once said, it's good to know who hates you, and it's good to be hated by the right people. The country icons Williams most connects with-Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe-succeeded not because of Nashville, but in spite of it.
No matter his thoughts on country music's capitol, he maintains a strong affection for the genre. He's as surefooted in honky-tonk, bluegrass and Western swing as he is in metal and punk. Beneath the tattoos and the raspy growl, it's his grandfather's mischievous eyes and piss-and-vinegar ways that truly haunt. The same backwoods chutzpah that produced "Mind Your Own Business" and "Move it on Over" rears its ornery head more than a few times in his own songs, albeit with much more profanity.
"My brain's always somewhere so quick, I don't get hung up on a song too much," he says. "It's a weird, too-much-acid, fuckin' beat-down-at-a-young-age kinda thing."
Straight to Hell culminates a decade of intoxication, sin, redemption and a healthy distrust for Music Row. But after years of mutual discord, peace talks between Williams and Curb Records have finally commenced. He's even stopped selling "Fuck Curb" merchandise.
"We are working on it, and tryin' to make it better," he sighs. "Just had a big meeting in front of everybody there. I only raised my voice once, kept my cool, said what needed to be said. They got some time to either make it right or we're gonna start off again on a not-friendly foot. We'll see, goddammit! As the song says, not everybody likes us."
But they drive some folks wild.
Hank III plays with The Murder Junkies at the Belly Up on June 5. Doors open at 7 p.m. Sold out.