With Straight to Hell, Hank III finally grows beyond the confines of his famous lineage and delivers a powerful mix of hillbilly and cow-punk near-classics.
Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold.
When Michael Stipe penned that line for "King of Birds", he created the slogan for a world-weary ode to self-reliance. The song tells of a child wishing to forge an identity for himself, without having to depend on the perspective of "giant" adults (or at least, it seems to be -- this is Michael Stipe; it could be about a cat). But what is most obvious in the emotional tone of the song is the idea that being forced into sharing someone else's perspective or subjected to their expectations without your consent can be not only frustrating, but debilitating.
Enter Hank Williams III, a man standing on the shoulders of giants his entire life: a Southern rebel in the 21st century, the son of Hank Williams, Jr., and the grandson of Hank Williams, Sr. While these three factors combined could provide him with enough baggage to overload LaGuardia International, he has managed to forge his frustration into anger, and his anger into energy. With sweat on his face, fire in his eyes, and whiskey on his breath, he is the embodiment of the hard-living rebel without a cause, the man every girl's mother warns her about. But for too long he has been standing on the shoulders of these giants, trying to walk the line between being true to himself and living up to the expectations of country music's (read Nashville's) establishment, not because he had neon lights in his eyes, but because he had bills to pay and mouths to feed.
But now he has finally made enough money that, without being rich from uncomfortably lame Monday Night Football endorsements or Jim Beam tour sponsorships, he at least has enough in the bank to maintain rent, board, and child support; and he even saved up enough to buy a multi-track recorder, which he used to record Straight to Hell so as not to incur additional studio recording costs (which he recommends to any struggling, aspiring musician). So, with almost zero overhead, freed from the constraints of any expectations but those of himself and his audience, he is now faced with the question, "What does a rebel do when he has the freedom to do anything?" The answer, much like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla: "Whatever he wants." And right now, he wants to vent.
While the bonus disc of this set (Louisiana Stars and Stripes) is, for lack of a better metaphor, the sound of that 800 pound gorilla sitting on a whoopee cushion (a "sound collage" that brings to mind such fan-only indulgences as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, Neil Young's Arc, the fourth side of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, or, for that matter, the Beatles' "Revolution #9"). It is merely a curiosity, a self-proclaimed hillbilly’s stab at avant garde (think the aural equivalent of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion, and you won’t be far off). But the main disc is the sound of Hank III, clear-eyed and focused, breaking out of his musical and cultural shackles with both guns blazing.
In "Not Everybody Likes Us", he takes on Kid Rock, snarling the lines: "Kid Rock don't come from where I come from/ Yeah it's true he’s a yank/ He ain't no son a' Hank", an obvious response to Detroit native Kid Rock's Confederate flag-waving and also, likely, his chummy friendship with Hank Williams, Jr. (paging Dr. Freud), which, in an ideal world, would get a response in kind from the American Badass, setting off a chain reaction of country music beefs (Be honest, wouldn’t you like to hear Merle Haggard sing a couple of lines pulling Toby Keith's punk card? But I digress...). However, not content to start a solitary beef, he also takes on the entire Nashville Music Row establishment with "Dick in Dixie", finally crystallizing the sentiment of resentment that many true country music fans have been feeling for years, with a bitingly clever but altogether unprintable chorus that ends with the salvo, "Pop country really sucks."
Elsewhere, he defiantly extols the virtues of non-virtuous living. Long a part of his repertoire, and that of outlaw country in general, songs with themes about drinking, smoking, popping pills, having wild sex, carrying guns, and getting kicked out of bars abound. In the barn-burning "Smoke and Wine", he manages to fit almost all of them into one careening bluegrass rebel yell. And, as if already anticipating the backlash from the conservative country establishment, he slyly uses the song "Country Heroes" to name-drop George Jones, David Allen Coe, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and, of course, Hank Williams, Sr. before drawing the obvious parallel, "And I'm here gettin' wasted / Just like my country heroes".
Straight to Hell is not likely to win any converts, and it isn't supposed to. Like punk or thrash metal (both of which Hank III plays at live shows), outlaw country is, by its very nature, confrontational, and if you haven't figured out that Hank III falls squarely into that camp by now, this album should relieve all doubt. But what he does here is inch one step closer to a masterpiece, delivering a remarkably solid set of songs that tap deep into the roots of a genre neglected and whitewashed by a suburban-courting, neo-conservative country music establishment, more often concerned with the bottom line than heart or soul. And in the process of raging against that Nashville machine, he finally starts to shrug off the pressure of public expectations and stand down from the shoulders of giants.