It was like field recordings, from the Amazon, or Africa, but it’s here in the United States! It’s not conspicuous, but it’s there
—Bruce Conner, quoted in Greil Marcus’s essay for the 1997 reissue of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
Greil Marcus wrote of an old, weird America contained within the folk songs of the nation, a metaphoric place where people could live unencumbered by the hypocrisy and repression of the United States of America. The old, weird America, born from the dusty trails and sticky air of the Red States, is the metaphorical homeland of those sex-addled, god-fearing folk, those sensual and the mystical people who sowed the seeds of the music we call rock and roll. That America, which achieves its fullest vitality through music, has nothing to do with PC sensibilities or a “culture of life” or a moral majority. The idea of publicly decrying as shameful what we ourselves do behind closed doors has no place in the America I’m thinking of. It’s a hard place where moral condemnation and guilt hang heavy, but never heavy enough to curb the hard drinking and sweaty loving - and where neither of those truths are denied.
That old, weird America didn’t disappear with Dock Boggs and Blind Lemon Jefferson—you can still find it. But you won’t locate it in the conceptualized primitiveness of punk-blues or the studied mannerisms of folk revivalists. You will find it, though, in the music of Hasil Adkins. It’s where his music lived. Ol’ Haze may be gone now, but put his music on and you can follow his ghost all the way there.
Backwoods rockabilly one-man-band Hasil Adkins earned the name “the Wild man” for his raw, impulsive performances. Many called him a lunatic, but it’s more accurate to simply call him American.
Too recently deceased to be a spectral presence like Robert Johnson or Jimmie Rodgers, nor equal to their stature as musical innovators, Hasil Adkins will never be thought of as a foundational figure. But what he does share with the mythical and mysterious figures of American music is the ability, when the mood is right and your mind is just a little wrong, to transport you to that untamed and unfamiliar America. And by god, we could all use the trip sometimes.
For those days when you’re sick and tired of hearing music made by people who’ve heard too much music, get yourself some Hasil Adkins. To listen to Hasil flail and holler to his own stompin’ on “Punchy Wunchy Wickey Wackey Woo” or ““Big Red Satellite”, is to listen to someone who is incapable of musical and spiritual capitulation. Hasil Adkins heard rock and roll when it was still new and wild, and he never let go of that feeling. Without any semblance of political correctness or aspirations to celebrity, his music kept the original feeling of rock and roll alive in way that few, if any, other musicians did.
Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Little Richard used to scare people; they rocked America. And depending on your age you either love or hated it. But the impact of those artists softened, partly due to time and partly due to the choices they made. But Hasil Adkins never softened; he never lost that connection to rock and roll’s primal urge - and that’s why his music still has the power to make you stop and say, “What the hell was that?”
From the time he began making music up until his death, with about 6,000 songs in between, Hasil Adkins was a living example of an America that doesn’t often step out from behind the shadows. From his home in Madison, West Virginia, about 30 miles from where the McCoys and Hatfields were busy killing each other, tucked into a mountain range he said “got no certain name”, Hasil Adkins made a uniquely American brand of rock and roll. Those looking for a single song that captures the essence of Adkins should check out 1961’s “She Said”: three minutes of frenzied, orgasmic moans, lyrics about “commodity meat” and Hasil imitating his ladyfriend’s own, uh, frenzied, orgasmic moans, all set to his own backwoods guitar and drum boogie. (The Cramps later covered it.) Those ready for a larger dose can’t go wrong with any of the albums put out by Norton records (especially 1987’s “Wild Man”, recently reissued), which showcase Adkins’s unparalleled purity and passion. And this ain’t the passion of an image conscious, hyperaware musician like Springsteen or Bono; this is the passion of someone who doesn’t know how to do it any other way.
If Hasil Adkins can be said to have a philosophy, a raison d’etre, it is best summed up as “hunchin”. What the hell is that? Well, during a broadcast featuring Hasil (which you can find online here), Radio DJ Jim “The Hound” Marshall described “the Hunch” as “the embodiment of the Hasil Adkins experience.” When Marshall asked for Adkins’ own definition, Haze just said, “I could put it, but I won’t say it now”.
Still not clear? Let me put it this way: If you’ve ever done something because you couldn’t keep yourself from doing it any longer, and then done it till you couldn’t do it no more, you know what it means to do the hunch. Hasil started hunchin’ early. The story goes that as a boy, Adkins heard a Hank Williams record on the radio and not having been told otherwise, assumed it was one man making all that noise. As a result, he became his own one-man band. Strumming his guitar, booting a kick drum, slapping a snare or a cymbal, and singing like Jerry Lee Lewis’s “unsophisticated” cousin, Adkins was the rawest rockabilly band you ever heard.
It’s hard to find a description of the man or his music that doesn’t use adjectives like “crazed”, “wild”, or “frantic”. Yes, his music was all of those things. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it was the product of a lunatic. Sure, Hasil wasn’t afraid to pull out a gun and shoot down a noisy ceiling fan if it was messing with the gig. Yeah, for a long time he’d drink somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty cups of coffee a day. He may even have got the occasional kick out of running a car into a telephone pole or throwing a rattlesnake in the backseat to make the ladies scream. That doesn’t mean he was crazy. What do you do when you think no one’s looking? How do you get your kicks? What websites are you looking at? Be honest. Hasil was honest - and in broad daylight, too.
His lyrics weren’t just off-the-wall ravings either. The words to his songs merely matched the fervour of the music. The subject matter was your everyday kind of stuff—that is, if you were Hasil Adkins: murder (usually by decapitation, as in “Do the Scalp”), poultry (2000’s Poultry in Motion is devoted entirely to songs about chicken), girls (often in conjunction with murder and meat) and, most important, hunchin’.
Seriously, Haze wasn’t just making this scalping and murder stuff up. In an interview for the online Hasil Adkins Hazequarters, Miriam Linna of Norton Records (the label responsible for bringing Hasil to a larger audience and for whom he recorded some of his best music) detailed how Haze had shared a jail cell with a man who eventually escaped and scalped his family. She also recounts finding out that up in Hasil’s neck of the woods, there had been a kidnapper who demanded his cellmate’s “head on a platter.” As far as chicken and girls go, the primacy of those two subjects in the mind of the American male should require no elaboration.
The sounds he made to accompany those words were also intentional. Heck, the man had perfect pitch. Listen closely enough and the idea that he stumbled on his style accidentally and irrationally seems laughable. Anyone labeled “inept” by Sting (as Hasil was in an infamous letter sent by Der Stinglehoffer to The Village Voice) is probably doing something right.
In addition to his typical “She Said” guise as an intense backwoods rock and roller, Adkins had big ol’ country soul. On songs like Still Missing You or his rendition of Merle Haggard’s Turning Off a Memory, Haze sanded out the grit in voice, steadied the rhythm of his guitar and made the kind of lonesome-moonlight-and-singing-crickets music that reminds you why country music was ever worth a damn. The two sides of Hasil’s music are a natural fit. He sure as hell could rock you, but he could also rock you to sleep. After all, you can get up to some seriously undisturbed dirty business when you live in the mountains, but it also gets awful lonely when your woman’s gone, your mama’s passed away, and the only living things for miles around can’t do anything but listen.
Still, Adkins was labelled “the Wild man”. Why? Was it because he acted like a real country boy and never succumbed to any of that Nashville bullshit? Or was it because he didn’t know how to sing or act in a way that wasn’t honest? Maybe it was because he loved women, preferred meat to vegetables, drove too fast and when he drank, he drank hard. Or maybe it was because after hearing Hank Williams float into his living room, he learned to make that sound completely on his own, in a way that seems impossible. Wild is a poor word to describe a man who lived life and made music with as much infectious self-belief and good-hearted vigour as Hasil Adkins. I can think of a better word. American is pretty good, but hunchin’ sounds even better.