Hank Williams III - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           Sprang from country music's most royal bloodline, Hank Williams III is an artist split between near schizophrenic extremes; capable of crying his forbears’ plangent honky-tonk classics with all the forlorn, emotional intensity that made his grandfather the most beloved hillbilly star of the 20th century, III also specializes in a high impact brand of accelerated punk-thrash so severe that his record company flat out refused to release any of it. As a result, the singer/guitarist’s self-described "hellbilly" material has been made available only through a series of sanctioned bootlegs. Though a bizarre and unprecedented move, his fans – a rabid, diehard cult following – enjoy each approach equally. Accordingly, Hank III's live shows are equally divided between a straight country opening segment followed by a climactic, cathartic set of hellbilly ear-bleeders, a format particularly pleasing to Hank Sr. fans as it allows them to escape, unscathed, before III turns his amp up and lets his hair down.  A crusty, foul-mouthed, outspoken and hard living hellion, Hank III somehow manages to reconcile the gap separating such radically divergent sounds.


            Shelton Hank Williams was born December 12, 1972 in Nashville, Tennessee. The boy’s seemingly picturesque life unraveled at an early age. His Mother, Gwen Yeargain Williams, was Randall “Hank Jr.” Williams’s second wife. At that point, Hank Jr. was despondent to the point of suicide and not exactly the greatest matrimonial catch. The couple divorced when Shelton was just three years old, the same age Junior was when his daddy, Hiriam “Hank” Williams, died. Shelton didn’t see his father for the next six years when Hank Williams Jr. spent that time mentally and physically recovering from a near fatal, five hundred foot fall off a mountain. When the boy was ten years old, Hank Jr. came back into his life, teaching him to play drums whenever he was in Atlanta, where Yeargain and the boy were then living. Inevitably gifted with a musical head, Williams III has cited influences ranging from Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck to ZZ Top, the Melvins and Black Sabbath. As a teenager, Williams III played in a series of local punk and thrash bands, undertaking a rowdy blur of dope-and-booze-fueled adventures that were plenty of fun, but it didn’t put groceries on the table. By the early 1990s, a girlfriend turned up pregnant and the paternity dispute resulted in court ordered child support and a judge’s advice that Williams get a “real job.” "I didn't want to work at McDonald's," he told the NY Daily News. "I decided to play the country music game."


            When Williams III debuted on the televised segment of Grand Ole Opry in the 1995, he had stunning impact on country fans. Clad in old school double breasted suit and cowboy hat, crying his grandfather’s famed “Lovesick Blues,” his eerie resemblance and ideal vocal tone so perfectly replicated Hank Sr. that it was downright paralyzing. Signed to Curb Records, his father’s label, his first project was the trans-generational montage album, Three Hanks: Men with Broken Hearts (Curb-1996) followed by a rough-hewn honky-tonk set, Rising Outlaw (Curb-1999), studded with aggressive, Music City-bashing ditties like "Trashville." He was finally making some money but it just didn’t feel right (a sentiment shared by Curb’s front office execs) and for his next release, Williams III took as much creative control as he could, completing production, recording and mixing chores on Lovesick, Broke and Driftin’ (Curb-2002) completely on his own (and in a matter of a few weeks).


            Aching to also showcase his rabid Assjack material, he clashed with the label over their stubborn refusal to release any of it. He grew increasingly unhappy with the terms imposed upon him by Curb, a company already infamous for stifling its artists. Merle Haggard’s short early ‘90s stint there was so acrimonious that Haggard told the press “Curb tried to kill my music – put it in a coffin” and repeatedly challenged Mike Curb to public boxing matches. III took it a step farther, selling “F*** Curb” T-shirts and later would routinely stop his show to dial up Mike Curb on a cell phone so that his screaming audiences could repeat the motto in frenzied unison. The strain became so great that two entire albums, Thrown out of the Bar and This Ain't Country were shelved. Apart from raging with Assjack, Williams III’s allegiance to high impact hard rock manifested itself in the early 2000s with road work as bassist for Pantera singer Phil Anselmo’s Superjoint Ritual.


            After a protracted round of court battles which eventually favored Williams III, Curb agreed to allow the singer some satisfaction. With the newly minted Bruc imprint, much of Thrown Out of the Bar eventually appeared on the startling, two-disc set, Straight to Hell (2006). One critic called it "the most beautifully ugly country album of all time." From its bizarre opening (a surface-noise laden verse of the Louvin Brothers’ cautionary “Satan is Real” that segues into the fire and brimstone fumed title track) through the second disc (a single, twenty plus minute song of bleak narco-existentialism, laced with phone messages from drug dealers, lonesome freight train sound effects and layers of indistinguishable audio), that characterization rang true. Straight to Hell was a flat-out bizarre, challenging and radically unconventional statement that clearly signaled Williams III had finally achieved a Hank Sr.-based amalgam which also incorporated the grandson’s own strange influences (e.g. GG Allin and Hasil Adkins) into a relatively cohesive style. At its core, his music roils with the smoldering Hank Williams Syndrome (as Waylon Jennings called it), fraught with all the conflicts and contradictions that Hank Jr. also suffered (and exorcised with songs like “Standing in the Shadows” and “Stoned at the Jukebox”). Williams III is in a mostly unenviable position, yet has made a tremendous effort to somehow bear such unremitting weight. Moreover, he has continued to succeed: Damn Right Rebel Proud (Curb-2008) demonstrated that his appeal is hardly limited – it impressively entered the Billboard country albums chart at number two and at number eighteen on the Top 200 albums chart. Despite being ineluctably bound to the punishing “Family Tradition,” Hank Williams III is a completely unique figure in modern American music, one worthy of careful observation.

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