The Punk-honky-tonking Life Of Hank Williams Iii

Posted: May 04, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas — On an outdoor stage, opening for his grandfather's old friend Ray Price, Shelton Hank Williams is fixing to deliver that eerie feeling the curious have been waiting for.

But just before he breaks into the yodel on Hank Williams Sr.'s "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," a gust of wind sends the bearer of the Williams rebel tradition chasing his cowboy hat, his ponytail revealed to the world.

"I just knew the wind was going to whip this thing right off my head," says the rail-thin, hollow-cheeked singer. "It's kind of hard for me to get in Hank Williams mode without my hat on."

With the proper lid and his game face on, the 27-year-old country scion known as Hank Williams III - or, simply, Hank Three - elicits the reaction he's heard ever since he made the calculated decision to embrace his legacy six years ago.

As the singer's mulish bray emanates from the stage, a burly guy in a flannel shirt calls home on his cell phone. "Listen to this, honey," he shouts. "It's Hank Williams III. He looks and sounds just like his granddad!"

The next afternoon, Williams is all nervous energy, telling his story and talking about Risin' Outlaw, the promising honky-tonk debut released last year. His flinty eyes dart over a hotel atrium full of industry types at the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW). Cowboy hat tabled, the duct-taped sole of a 10-year-old boot taps the carpet.

"I found the farthest thing from country music and fell in love with it," begins Williams, who will open for Rev. Horton Heat at Philadelphia's Trocadero on Sunday.

The first-born son of Randall Hank Williams - that's Hank "Are you ready for some football?" Jr., whom he doesn't get along with and sounds nothing like - is talking about his days in punk-rock and metal bands with names such as Buzzkill and Bedwetter.

Raised in Atlanta by his mother, the first of four Mrs. Hank Jr.'s, Shelton started playing the drums at 10. He sat in on the tune "Family Tradition" when he visited his father on the road, but not too often: "Merle Kilgore [Hank Jr.'s manager] always told me not to go up onstage because it would make my dad look old."

"My dad was not a good father because he was busy drugging and drinking and being with women. . . . It's a full-time job," he explains with a mixture of rancor and empathy.

In 1994, the younger Williams - who had his head turned by college radio, and had long since abandoned country - was setting up at a gig in Nashville, where he still lives in the working-class east side. Three police officers approached him: He was being sued for child support.

"I had a one-night stand that waited three years to tell me I had a kid," says the singer, who doesn't see his son and describes his relationship with the boy's mother as "all hate." "I had to pay child support, lawyers' fees, the whole deal. And here I was making $20 a gig. The judge said: 'It's time for you to get a real job, son.' "

Then and there, Shelton Williams became Hank III. "It was time for me to to try to make some money playing country music," he says, acknowledging that his decision was purely mercenary. "I had to pay for my mistakes."

His name quickly landed him a deal, but in 1996 Curb Records, he says, pushed him into recording Three Hanks, a trashy novelty album that electronically teams him with his father and grandfather on Hank Sr. songs. "I don't even like to call that mine," he says. "That was a Curb idea . . . but they never listen to me. No matter what I say, I'm stupid."

Key to finding his way, says Williams, was discovering the music of contemporary artists such as Wayne "The Train" Hancock and Dale Watson. He calls the Texans, who carry on Hank Sr.'s legacy and eschew the middle-of-the-road puffery of Nashville, "my heroes."

"It was guys like that that told me, 'You need to take Tennessee back, my brother.' The country industry is all about how you look, and if you can shake your [hips] and dance. . . . You need to put some real country music in there if you're going to call it country music."

"Shelton got into [country] for all the wrong reasons, but it's like he's born again," says Hancock, who has three compositions on Risin' Outlaw and is credited in the liner notes as "the realist singer/songwriter and performer in Country Music today!!!"

"There's nothing Top 40 about him, thank god. I applaud his courage: He's got to overcome both Junior and Senior. But he genuinely writes about the life he lives. It's hard to dislike a guy whose heart is in the right place."

Risin' Outlaw is made up of three originals and smartly selected songs by quality writers such as Hancock, Kostas, and Buddy and Julie Miller. For his next album, This Ain't Country, Williams will showcase his crack band (which includes Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison) on a "punkabilly hellbilly acoustic metal" set. After that, he'll release a country album of his own compositions.

And in order to write good country songs, Williams says, he took his grandfather's advice: "Take your heart, and break it into a million pieces."

He's still heartsick about a relationship that ended 2 1/2 years ago, even though he engineered its ending. "I had a great girlfriend and a pretty good life. And I thought, 'How am I going to sing about heartache and depression?' So I shoved her out of my life so I would not be a fake."

After his show with Ray Price, Williams turned up at gigs by Steve Earle and the Swedish hard-rock band the Backyard Babies, with his head down and a beer in his hand. "I'm pretty insecure and shy when I'm on my own," he explains. "I don't want to cause no trouble or whatever."

But onstage and in interviews, he's Hank III, risin' outlaw. He talks openly about his homemade porn video and his fondness for mind-altering substances: "Just psychedelics, pot and drinking. When I'm young enough and on the road, I want to have fun."

His candor, he explains, is pragmatic: "I wanted to get everything bad about me out in the open before I made anything of myself, so they couldn't chew me up and spit me out later. I may be digging my own ditch. But it's getting me a lot of buzz."

Since he turned to country, Williams says, his respect for his grandfather, who died at 29 in 1953, has grown.

"He was a truly gifted guy. I can see why so many people love him. And from hearing it so much - 'You look and sound like your granddaddy' - you can't help but feel that you're kind of living his life a little bit. But I know Hank Williams just like a fan does."

And though he jokes about how cool it is to die at 27 - the age that Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin met their demise - he says he's not really interested in following Hank Sr. to an early grave.

"I plan on being here for the long haul," he says. "And I'm usually pretty cautious. I've got my head together somewhat. I'd like to stick around for as long as I can."

Dan DeLuca's e-mail address is

IF YOU GO Hank Williams III and the Amazing Crowns will open for Rev. Horton Heat at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Trocadero, 10th and Arch Streets. Tickets: $15; $12 advance. Information: 215-922-5483.

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