PopMatters Books Editor
Yeah, so, y’all probably know the story. He’s the son of a country star, the grandson of a country legend, and papa to the next in line. He decided early on that the easy road was for pussies. This Hank Williams—just like those before him—is a hard liver of the highest order. He wants to make his living from performing and producing his own kind of Punk-Country-Rock, codenamed Hellbilly. That ain’t happening exactly—much as he loathes it, Hank’s toeing the line (in a way) for Curb Records; waiting, wishing, hoping that someday soon the ever-resistant co. will release and effectively market his most excellent punk songs. Meanwhile, his output—most recently on Straight to Hell, a workable blend of sultry country rhymes and dirty country blues—is slightly less aggressive, with Hank utilizing that inherited wonder-voice to great effect. It might not be what he wants to do, but damn if he doesn’t do it well.
Superior though this latest record may be, the only way to experience the real Hank III is to hit one of his upcoming live shows. The stage is somewhere the censors can’t reach, and Hank’s set is guaranteed to be a way-long exploration into one man’s damage—the country side starts before it gets well and truly nailed by Assjack. The Hellbilly Hellhounds come out to play, and then fuck you if can’t hold on. The philosophy is all there, in one blood-stained, Beam-soaked night on the town that’ll be well worth the change (I’m thinking, Chameleon Club, central PA, sometime in 2001). And here it is—Hank’s Guide to Life in Eight Easy Words: Enter screaming, Scream all the time, Die screaming. To live, you know, is to rage. Anything else is just too fuckin’ easy.
And then there’s Hank, the in-person guy. Oddly, his one-on-one is almost exactly like his stage persona—honest and direct, respectful and affable, most likely affected by a drink or two, but, overall, very cool. He talks just like he sings, too, with a crackly-smooth drawl, as scary as it is sexy. PopMatters spoke to Hank about Straight to Hell, songwriting, history, A&R dopes, and the blight that is the 12-year-old country star.
So much of Straight to Hell is actually quite mellow—I’m thinking of “Lowdown”, “Angel of Sin”, “Country Heroes”—more mellow than your bootlegs and your stage shows. Is it, perhaps, a misunderstanding with audiences and record buyers that you’re primarily a punk/rock musician?
No. I’ve been trying for eight years to get our rock CD out there, but we keep getting held back. Our country side is our country side and the Hellbilly and the Assjack is a totally different thing. That’s where the edgier stuff comes in—the no harmonies and the screaming and all that stuff. It’ll come out whenever all these legal people get situated.
Is it a marketing thing? Are they resistant because they don’t feel they can sell it properly?
If anybody knew anything about marketing, they’d understand they have three different opportunities to market this one person. But I got a bunch of dumbasses working for me. That’s the way it is. They don’t understand shit.
So, what do you do when you’re coming at this whole thing from an artistic perspective yet you’ve got to deal with and communicate with businessmen?
I’ve always worked it myself. I’ve hung myself legally and all that shit. I’ve sold my own bootlegs over the years. There’s six of them out there that you can get. That’s how we’ve gotten to the black t-shirt kids and that want the [punk/rock] side. Our true fans know where to find that stuff. The record label’s problem is they’re sitting on their asses acting like we’re gonna be young forever.
Big business, then, destroyed country music?
Yes. Today, the music business is all about lawyers. Nobody’s word means shit anymore, and it’s all about what this lawyer can say to this other lawyer and how much money they can raise. Unless you’re lucky and working with somebody like Mike Patton, and can get past something like that, you’ve got a chance. But as far as most of these majors go, they’re all looking at it from a business point of view. Like the other day, I was having this meeting with basically all of Curb Records—they started getting on to me about bootlegging, and talking about the young generation. That evening, I was at a VFW—that’s where old people from Vietnam go and drink beer and talk—they’re like 65 on up. Those people are already burning. You know, they walk in with the new Alan Jackson CD and they’re like: “Look what I got!” And they’re like: “Make sure you burn a copy!” And they get it out, and started burning it right there. So, I’m thinking, if it’s the young generation or if it’s like the 60s and above, they’re still burning and you ain’t gonna win. That’s just the way it is. So you’re gonna have to get used to it.
Why do you think we’re okay with burning, as music fan? Do we love and support Alan Jackson so much that we feel we deserve to hear his music for free?
To a point. [But,] the true fan’ll buy the record if he wants the record. If the bootleg is out there, that’s great. But get used to it. If somebody wants the artwork and the credits and all that, [they’ll buy it]. That’s what’s kept us alive for 10 years is the bootleggers. You know, I’ll never be like Metallica, and be against ‘em or anything like that.
So, your record company is stalling on legally producing a record that your fans clearly want and are obviously buying. How does that make sense?
Oh, I hear ya. I told ‘em the other day. I mean, you know, I was like, well, my first bootleg is at Amoeba Records in San Francisco for $400. And no fucking record that ever comes out of Curb Records will ever be like that. That’s because we did it like the Misfits—the first one’s only a thousand printed. The second one’s only 2,000 printed; all hand-packed, and all signed by me. That shit just goes an extra mile with people. It’s a certain artistic beauty.
The two albums thing has got to really infuriate you. [Curb released a “clean” version of Hank’s album after Wal-Mart refused to carry the original cut.]
It’s infuriating that they took two songs off the album without asking me. All I can say is America needs to get a little less anal. ‘Cause you got kids fighting this big war, supposedly dying, and you’re gonna get upset over shit, fuck, and goddamn? Come on! It’s 2006. Get fucking real. Wake up, grow up, catch on to some of the European ways and quit being so goddamned uptight. That’s all I can say. It’s complete stupidity. It’s part of the American vocabulary, because you’re a Christian good guy or whatever, that’s fine, [but] censorship, I’ve always been against it. It’s complete immaturity. If people can get killed by the time they’re 18, I don’t think a few cuss words are gonna hurt ‘em.
Why does Misfits-type punk miss the mainstream, while crappy so-called “punk” hits it big?
Because I believe that that’s for the younger crowd. [Real punk is] underground music, that’s all I can say. A lot of those topics are topics that people don’t like to deal with. And most of those guys die young, and it’s not necessarily a lifestyle that people like to promote too much now. Not all punks are like that. Some punks are the most straight-edged, clean and sober people you could ever meet. Just like Ian MacKaye from Fugazi or Minor Threat. Or Henry Rollins from Black Flag. Either they’re really hardcore straight or they’re really, really bad. One of the two.
When you’re on the road, what do people respond to most—the country or the rock?
It depends on how drunk they are. And what kind of a crowd it is. Sometimes the country shit is more violent than the rock stuff. It depends on the crowd or sometimes it’s the same energy throughout the show. But it’s a hard one to call. I’ve seen the pit be a lot more [violent] during some laidback country songs than it is it on the Assjack set. And it’s a long show. Most shows nowadays are 45 minutes to an hour. Hell, we’re going out there and playing close to 50 songs in a two-and-a-half-hour show. In general, I’m just worried about standing up that long, let alone drinking as much as you can or being on whatever pills or whatever. Definitely a haul, that’s for sure.
Do you mean to push boundaries with your writing or it just comes out that way?
I write them out of either depression or sorrow or partying, because we play in bars most of our lives, having a good time, smoking pot, drinking, all that stuff. We play to a bar kind of crowd. I usually just hit record and let the song flow and go back and start writing. You know with dyslexia and ADD and all this stuff I’ve had problems with in the past, that’s the way I gotta write. If I got an acoustic in my hand then I’m that mode, if I got an electric guitar in my hand then I’m in that mode.
How much of your writing is based on personal experience?
A lot of it is personal situations. Or family members, sometimes it’s the people I meet on the road, talking about them. In the rock stuff, words don’t really have as much meaning, because you can’t understand ‘em half the time. It’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. I definitely think that’s what makes us more unique. Hell, there’s already been a few Hank Williamses in front of me that’ve been country stars. I could’ve chosen the easy country life, to go out there an sing for an hour, and act like I’m this pretty Bible-belt thumpin’ guy. I could’ve taken the easy road, but I chose the long road a long time ago. That’s just the card I was dealt, and we ain’t better, and we ain’t the best, and that’s why we get up a little earlier, and come up with different sounds, and just keep trying to do what I can do…. So long as the body keeps holding out for a little while.
Do country and punk, lyrically, come from the same place for you?
Hmm, no. I know there are some same topics there, but as far as music goes, it is two different styles. A lot of kids start off being all hardcore and punk and they sometimes mellow out as they get older and get into the rockabilly stuff and start wondering what this country stuff’s about. It’s like a little bit of a life change for some of ‘em; not all of ‘em. I definitely see similarities. For me, growing up, [punk] was the farthest thing from country music that I could find. That’s what I loved, being a drummer I was looking for the energetic high beats and stuff like that. That’s what was getting me.
When did you first discover punk?
I was at 11 or 12 years old living in Atlanta, Georgia. This radio station—88.5—they had this show that played everything from Misfits to Dead Kennedys to Animosity to Corrosion to Conformity, Agnostic Front, Slayer, and just all these bands. I just started making tapes right off the radio. I still have ‘em to this day. That is what officially changed me, and introduced me to a whole new world.
When you’re doing the loud screaming, is it cathartic? Do you go out of body in any sense?
Hmm, I definitely see double. I definitely see white when I’m screaming. And I see double and that’s with no alcohol in me, and maybe a couple hits of pot. It’s just a sensation I get trying to push that hard. I’m starting to feel it. Even though I’m 33, I’m like 45 in dog years. Especially being on the road and burning the candle at both ends for so long.
Do you need the extra experience like that in order to write authentically?
To a point, definitely. You gotta practice what you preach—I’m a great believer in that. Not these 12-year-old country artists they try to push out there aren’t great with the emotions, You know, shit, a 12 year old, maybe, is just starting to understand, to maybe kiss a girl, its not like he’s gonna be able to understand heartbreak ... The more self-destructive you are, the better. I mean, for me, it’s like for a lot of artists, the worse off you are, the more creative you are.
// Notes from the Road
"Josh Ritter kicks off a string of summer U.S. shows with rousing free performance at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.READ the article