First things first: If my bootleg Hank III collection (what, you don’t have one?) is to be believed, a large percentage—80%, to be exact—of the tracks on Hillbilly Joker have been floating around the interwebs in a quasi-legal status since 2003 under the album title This Ain’t Country. (Some tracks also appear on III Shades of Hank; use this information however you’d like.) That said, even with a new moniker, the old This Ain’t Country is a pretty apt title—as Williams fans who dig his hard rock side project, Assjack, know, there’s more to the man than his souped-up, hellbound take on his grandfather’s genre. Hillbilly Joker splits the difference between Hank III proper and Assjack, and as a result, will either offer something for both sets of fans or disappoint them, depending on your level of cynicism.
Williams’s lyrical motifs have rarely, if at all, changed since his 1999 (!) debut, Risin’ Outlaw, and he wastes no time announcing his love for weed and wine and calling out the haters (“You don’t like our hillbilly sound? Well, hey man, go FUCK YOU!”) on the opening, doom-laden “Hillbilly Sound”. Yes, it all borders on self-parody—how much booze, drugs, and persecution, how many fistfights and encounters with Satan can one man endure?—but Williams expertly delivers his shtick with a winking eye and barbarous black humor. How else to explain “Pistol Packin’”, where, over a hard, metallic guitar lead, he calls out an enemy who brings a gun to a knifefight (“Fight like a real man!”), or the swampy cautionary tale “Now He’s Dead”, where Hank matter-of-factly outlines the death of two speed addict/gangbanger buddies—call it the hillbilly “People Who Died”—or the album’s funniest moment, “Tennessee Driver” (which is also on the Assjack record), a demented rig rock novella where Hank’s narrator, sporting a mohawk and stuck on the side of the road with a broken-down car, can’t get anyone to help him (“OH, HELL NO!”, courtesy of a local bartender Williams solicits, serves as the pungent refrain/punchline).
The Hank III thematic elements are in place, even if the sound isn’t. The hard rock attack and more guttural vocals may turn off those who prefer their Hank twangy, nasal, and surrounded by steel guitars and fiddles, though even the haters may be surprised by how fluid Williams’s voice is on a tune like “10 Feet Down”, twisting from cookie monster growl to swagger to croak on a syllable, as if possessed by a demon; he makes Jello Biafra sound like Calvin Johnson.
While Hillbilly Joker makes the listener work for it a little harder than usual, the shitkickin’, hellraisin’ Hank III we all love is buried underneath all the guitars—to these ears, something that can’t be said quite so easily about the Assjack project. Still, it’s hard not consider this album a bit of a double back while Williams pauses to sharpen his blade and crack open a fresh bottle of whisky before charging back into the battle.
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