Interview Date: 09/30/2008
Run Date: 10/22/2008
He’s the grandson of one of the most legendary figures of country music, and the son of one of the most infamous, but while Hank Williams III is a man who respects the work of Hank Sr. and, if perhaps to a lesser extent, Hank Jr., he’s also one who follows the beat of his own drummer. We spoke to HW3 on the occasion of the release of his latest album, Damn Right Rebel Proud, and we talked about how surprisingly easy it is to switch from country to punk, whether his resemblance to his grandfather really made Minnie Pearl say, “Lord, honey, you’re a ghost,” and what Darius Rucker’s new single says about the state of the country music industry.
Hank Williams III: Hello?
Bullz-Eye: Hey, may I speak to Hank?
Hank Williams III: Hey man.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, how’s it going? Pleasure to talk to you.
HW: You know it. Talk it out, man.
BE: All right, well, I got an advance copy of the new album, and I’m very much loving it.
HW: Good deal.
BE: You do not pull any punches, and that’s straight from the get go, with “The Grand Ol’ Opry (Ain’t So Grand).”
HW: Yeah, you know it is what it is? It’s kind of like part of the Reinstate Hank campaign…but they’ll probably never reinstate him, anyways, so that’s why you’ve just got to let them know.
Check out the video for HW3's new song,
"Long Hauls and Close Calls"!
BE: I have to admit that I did not even realize that he did not have instatement in the Opry. It just never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be in there.
HW: Well, he’s definitely kicked out. He had good reasons to be kicked out, but if you’ve looked at the things that have happened since he’s passed on and what they’ve done in the last 20 years with his image and his likeness and all that stuff, that’s where it gets a bit disrespectful. It is one of those things, man, where I’ve been working on that campaign for probably five years, and the last couple of years it’s gotten a bit more serious. Once the president gave me a bunch of attitude…because I tried to do it proper and behind the scenes and not bringing it to the public, but once they gave me the attitude, I was, like, “Well, if you want to be like that, I’ll let you hear what the people have to say.” That’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
BE: How do you feel that your position in the music industry stands right now? I mean, listening to your music, it’s country -- depending on your definition of country, of course -- but it’s rockabilly, it’s hellbilly, it’s Americana. How do you personally describe it?
HW: Well, the way I look at it is…to me, it’s a country record, period. I mean, compared to Assjack or the hellbilly stuff…I mean, it’s not a pure country album, such as Dale Watson or Wayne Hancock, but it has its moments. I consider it a country album compared to Big & Rich or Rascal Flatts or stuff like that. Some people say it’s a punk rock record or things like that, but I’ve never agreed with anyone saying that. But there’s an acoustic guitar on it, and I’m singing pretty clean, so I consider it a country record. That’s just my take on that stance.
BE: Would you agree there’s a punk aesthetic to it, though?
HW: Maybe just on a couple of songs, but I don’t think throughout the whole record. Maybe on “Punch, Fight, Fuck” and “Long Hauls and Close Calls.” Those are the only two that I would say…it’s just when I think of a punk record or stuff like that, I think of pretty aggressive stuff. If someone calls the record that, it just doesn’t sit right with me because it misleads…let’s say it’s a 15-year-old punk rock kid who’s going to pick it up. Well, if they say it’s a punk record and he picks it up…well, he’s going to be disappointed. It’s got a little bit of influence, but it’s not a punk rock record or a hard rock record. I consider it an outside-of-the-box country record, and that’s all.
BE: See, from my perspective, punk and country aren’t mutually exclusive. I mean, when I was in college in 1992 in Danville, Va., I literally had friends who were switching from David Allan Coe to the Melvins without blinking an eye.
BE: I guess what I’m saying is that the mainstream audiences don’t seem to be able to comprehend that people can make that switch so easily. I mean, it’s all a matter of having the right mindset.
HW: Yeah, I was…I don’t do them very often, but it was a mainstream interview last week, and she wasn’t understanding the diversity of the people that we get at our shows and the group of kids out there, or the adults, that love…well, we’ll use the example of Pantera and David Allan Coe. I mean, there’s a whole slew of people out there that just love that, and they love the old school country. And they can’t get a grasp on that. It’s definitely starting to merge together. You can see a lot more, you know, if it’s Randy from Lamb of God or even Buzz from the Melvins or any of those; a lot of those guys have really liked country music. I know some of the dudes in Hatebreed and even some of the guys in Obituary. You would just be surprised how many people that play the music and listen are starting to tap in to both styles and relate some of the artists with each other.
BE: Did you find that you picked up any new audience when you contributed a Black Flag cover to the West Memphis 3 compilation album?
HW: Maybe just a little bit. I mean, since the Black Flag bars (in our logo) have been used for so long, we’ve already kind of established that a good bit. I mean, honestly, working with Superjoint Ritual and Philip Anselmo was the biggest difference that I’ve seen, as far as…I can’t tell you how many kids say, “Well, I never knew who you were until I bought the Superjoint record or saw Superjoint live.” That’s definitely been a huge gateway. With the West Memphis 3 album, it was just kind of, you know, we got some good reviews on it, and once in awhile there will be some kids that shout it out, but it wasn’t, like, “I never knew who you were until I picked up that record.” I don’t hear that that much. But I do hear that from the Superjoint side of things.
BE: With your shows -- I have to admit that I’ve never actually been to one -- but my understanding is that you split the sets up so it’s country, then hellbilly, then the Assjack set. Is that still correct?
HW: Yeah, that’s just my way of trying to pay respects to…a lot of people coming to see the country show don’t give a damn about the other side. And that’s why the first hour is dedicated to that, and the second hour is dedicated to breaking the rules or getting a little more aggressive or what not. And I can’t scream and then sing; it always has to go so that I sing and then scream. It’s just the kind of way it works with me. So I hope to be able to keep flip-flopping the shows like that as long as I can. It does take a toll on the voice, but that’s my own cross to bear, you know. That’s my curse of doing both of the shows, but that’s what makes us different and keeps us out there. And gets our respect from people out there that would normally not be into us.
BE: Do you find that the crowds aren’t thinning as much as maybe they used to when you move on from the country set to the next stage of the show?
HW: It’s real hard to say. I mean, it’s always a roller coaster ride. It’s honestly hard to say because people’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter. If I did not take a five-minute break to switch the stage, we would probably not lose as many people. If I just kept saying, “Thanks for coming out, now we’re doing Assjack,” and just straight up went into it, we might not lose as many. But it’s hard to say. Like, in Arizona, in a room full of 1,500 people…well, there might be 800 people that stick around for Assjack. Or sometimes in a room full of 1,000 people, I’ll see 500 walk out the door after the country set and 500 stay…or I’ve seen only 50 people stay. Either way, they still get the same show, and all I can say is it’s a roller coaster, never ending. You never can tell what crowd is going to stick around or not.
BE: I know you did that Three Hanks album when you first got into the business. Was there ever any temptation to go down the mainstream country route or did you always have the rebellious feel to your music?
HW: No, I mean, even on that record, I did everything I could to not do it and say, “I don’t agree with it.” Even though me and Hank Jr. hadn’t been that tight, what, you’re just going to all of a sudden act like, “Oh, here’s this record and we’re going to pave the way for him?” Why don’t you wait 15 years and let me get my audience and then do that record? That seems the correct way to do it. That record…it was an honor to sing with Hank Jr. and Hank Sr. It was that. But as far as listening to the record or supporting it, I’ve never supported it or been that proud of it just because of the behind-the-scenes things. And as far as the temptation on the mainstream…I mean, I kind of understand it. That interview I did last week with that mainstream person, they asked the question, “Would you ever have a hit song or work with those people if you could?” Well, let’s see, a hit song…everyone keeps telling me I need a hit song, so does that mean I need to join this little group of songwriters and this producer that pays the radio station to have a hit song? No, that doesn’t seem right to me. Back when people used to write hit songs, they wrote them for themselves, and the people out there would make a decision if they liked the song or not. It wasn’t like a rally just to force it upon people; people had a decision if they liked it or not. A good song will push itself, it doesn’t need people to pay for it to push it. In my opinion, I’ve turned in hit songs; it’s not my problem that my songs aren’t what today’s standards or the radio’s…what’s the best way to say it? The radio sound, I guess. To me songs like “Mississippi Mud,” “Cecil Brown,” “Country Heroes,” and “I Don’t Know” back on the first record, and “My Drinking Problem,” those are straight up country songs compared to half of these pop-oriented other artists out there that are called country music. And those are hit songs to me, and when I hear my fans sing them back to me, that’s all I need to hear. If you want to have a prime example, that guy from Hootie and the Blowfish made a country record. He turned it in, and they said, “Well, that’s a little too country. We don’t like that song, but if you do it this way and take that out and listen to what we have to say, we’ll guarantee you it will go number one, you’ll have all this.” Sure enough, he does that and look what happens: he’s got a number one country song within a week. So that just goes to show you: it’s all rigged. It’s not like it used to be. If you want to join their club and be part of that game, sure, but it’s just not real. I mean, the Internet is giving a chance, and the podcasts and all that and the college radio stations, they’re giving a chance for music just to be music and not some campaign, almost. So that’s kind of my stance on it. I’ve only worked with one mainstream producer, and I never did get along with him because he was trying to change my songs and all that, and I just never did like that. I write songs for myself and nobody else. I mean, that’s what Johnny Cash always said to do, and that’s the way I’ve always kind of done it.
BE: Do you get feedback from people from Johnny Cash’s era?
HW: I mean, our crowd is 18 to 80, so…
BE: Sorry, I meant do you hear from anyone from that era of country music about your material?
HW: A good bit. I mean, there are some folks that like some of it, or they might come out to the show and respect a little bit of it and some of it’s a little too fast for them. But I’ve definitely been around the older folks that can identify with it, and they might say, “Well, I can see you got your roots, but I can also see you’re doing something on your own, you’re carving your own niche.” I guess compared to Jett Williams and stuff like that, they can see that I’m making my own trail and just doing it a little different.
BE: I just have a couple more quick ones for you. Mostly for curiosity sake, there’s something on the Wikipedia page that I’ve got to ask whether it’s true or not.
BE: Were you really approached by Minnie Pearl, at which point she said, “Lord, honey, you're a ghost,” because you looked so much like your grandfather?
HW: She was probably one of the last people I’ll ever get to talk with real deep about Hank Williams. We would always go out to lunch and she would just tell me stories. I was probably 12 to 14, but she could see the likeness. She wasn’t saying it in a bad kind of way, she was just, like, “Boy, it’s pretty amazing how much the bloodline looks the same and how it’s been passed down.” She was around Hank Jr. a good bit of her life, and seeing him and then seeing me just kind of set her back just a little bit. She’s one of the few people that’s actually taken the time just to reminisce and tell me good and bad things about him. She was very close to my mom, and that’s why I had that kind of relationship with her. I mean, the last person today would be, I guess, Little Jimmy Dickens and, you know, he’s not doing too good right now and barely hanging in there. Still doing shows, though. I mean, he’s had to cancel a few as of recently, but once he’s passed on, a lot of stories will be going away with him.
BE: Setting aside the new album, which of your other albums do you think would be the most representative for somebody who wanted to try out the sound of Hank Williams III?
HW: I would just say Straight to Hell because it’s a more personal record, and the way it was recorded…it’s just a little bit more of a partying scene record. And you’ve got the Super Pickers on side A, and if you fast forward enough through all the noise, you’ve got just me an my acoustic guitar on side B. I mean, that one will take quite awhile to beat, in my eyes. And I don’t know, it kind of gives a little bit of everything. If it’s “Louisiana Stripes” for Johnny Cash or a little bit of the Hills sound or the West Virginia kind of sound with “D. Ray White;” “My Drinkin’ Problem” is a straight up song. It has a good bit of variety on it.
BE: Is there an old school country artist who most people haven’t heard of that you recommend?
HW: Let’s see…let me go through this. Let me get this thing turned on just to go through the list; there are so many.
BE: Turning on your iPod? Or your iTunes?
HW: Yeah. I’m getting it dialed in there. (Pauses) Does a Roy Hogsed ring a bell to you?
BE: No, actually.
HW: I’m not sure if I’m saying it correctly, but he’s good. As far as the banjo goes, Dock Boggs was a real important person in my life, but that’s going back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, not necessarily country. Just one second (Pauses again) This damned thing…
BE: If you want, I can give you my e-mail, if you just want to drop me an e-mail with a couple of names.
HW: Yeah, because I would like to look at the list, because I tried to answer this the other day. I’ll definitely send you a few names on this one, for sure.
BE: All right, Hank, well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I look forward to your recommendations.
HW: Alright, alright. Thanks. Bye-bye!
Post-script: Due to a combination of E-mail confusion and busy schedules, we actually just ended up trading text messages, but when push came to shove, the only other name that Hank really wanted to trumpet was that of Roy Duke. He did, however, make a second mention of Roy Hogsed, so it’s fair to say that he really, really thinks you should check him out.