For about 90% of bands out there, the prospect of a long-term record contact is a true sign that they’ve “made it”. I’m not talking about 90% of the bands you hear on the radio, I’m referring to all bands. The bands you see taking any paying gig available, be it weddings or in a strip mall on a weekend. Groups of college or high-school friends who are bashing away in their parents garage or basement. The idea, the very notion that these people could quit their day jobs and make a full-time living doing what they love is as alluring as the opportunity for a music geek to land a full-time salaried position as an album reviewer.
Of course, some who have been so lucky to land a long-term record contract have a different take. Think Prince in his high-profile fight with Warner Bros. Think Trent Reznor and his fight with Interscope. In some cases, the dispute is as petty as an argument about what additional half-percentage point of royalties should be awarded to an artist. For others that have fallen prey to record execs taking advantage of an artist with no funds and no representation, it could mean taking all royalties and ownership of an artist’s work, leaving the artist broke and in some unfortunate cases, homeless.
Like all conflict, the struggles between an artist and their record company have resulted in some great works, depending on the direction the artist wanted to take. Prince’s back-and-forth with Warner Bros. (Prince wanted a triple-LP, Warner Bros. wanted a double) resulted in his classic Sign O’ The Times. However, Prince’s final Warner Bros. album, Come, was the musical equivalent of someone dropping off ten unwanted items at the Salvation Army.
Hank Williams III’s time with Curb Records has finally reached an end. And he couldn’t sound happier. His final album, The Rebel Within, is the sound of someone on his last day of work telling off every single person who pissed him off and wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt (the one with the iconic shot of him giving the cameraman the finger) in the process. Hank Williams III is a free man now. And thankfully, he knows he shouldn’t jeopardize his career by making his final release a half-assed affair. After all, for as many headaches Williams III alleges Curb caused him, his fans are the ones who will wind up shelling out money for his product.
To fans, Williams III represents the authentic spirit of “outlaw country” before the glitz and polish of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks infected country radio. Tattooed and a professed lover of punk rock, Williams III, at least on the surface, shares far more similarities with his grandfather than his father, Hank Williams, Jr. Unfortunately, Williams’ love for all things outlaw has resulted in some fairly unoriginal material, covering such well-mined subjects as broken hearts and “gettin’ drunk”.
However, originality can be overrated, especially when hearing Williams III’s enthusiasm throughout The Rebel Within. “Gone But Not Forgotten” and “Moonshiner’s Life” showcase Williams III ability to effortlessly infuse bluegrass, rockabilly, folk, and punk into his sound. His voice, a nasally twine, brings comparisons to King of the Hill’s chain smoking conspiracy-obsessed Dale Gribble. And songs like “Getting’ Drunk and Fallin’ Down” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard to Do” sound like the type that Gribble could have written.
The real kick of The Rebel Within comes from “Tore Up & Loud”. The song begins with Williams’ fuzz-box-distorted voice singing about “raising hell on a Saturday night”. Midway through, a guitar solo breaks out so frantic, you can imagine the moshpit that will erupt whenever Williams plays this song live. Williams then screams “After 14 years, I’m finally motherfucking free!”
Where he goes now is anyone’s guess. Will he continue to play his standard, reliable outlaw country style, or will he use the freedom of a new label to sharpen his lyrical skills and take some chances that may not have been open to him on his old label? Regardless of where he goes, Williams could have thrown together a patched-up work for a final album and called it a day. It’s commendable that instead he chose to put forth enough effort to make an album worthy for fans. After all, when an artist makes a half-assed album to get out of their album contract, fans will still associate the album with the artist, not the record label.