By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
Hank Williams III never met his grandfather, the iconic balladeer considered the king of country music.
But the resemblance between the two, musically, physically, vocally, and even attitudinally, goes beyond the boundaries of just plain uncanny.
At 38-years-old, Hank III revels in the boozy, rowdy nature of his lineage.
“It’s a respect issue,” says Hank III, born Shelton Hank Williams III. “I never knew Hank Williams, I only know him through his music. I never had any personal time or contact with him. I only know of him as a fan. Even still, I defend and protect my family, and do them proud.”
Hank III started out playing with his dad on-stage when he was only 10-years-old. His songs perpetuate the cornerstones of pure country’s hard-living identity: Double-crossing women, dalliances with drugs, booze, and the devil, as well as the loneliness of the road, the Lord, fear, and redemption.
Hank III upholds the grittiest elements of his family tree, while branding its bark with his own twist: classic country delivered with blazing punk attitude.
Since his first solo album, Risin’ Outlaw, was released in September 1999, he has garnered respectable sales and positive reviews. While his birthright could have guaranteed him a wide country audience, his lack of patience for the often humdrum Nashville sound, cussedness, and disregard for even the basic behavioral requirements of his promoters, have left him a bit alienated. His sentiments on this subject are captured in his songs “Trashville” and “Dick in Dixie.”
“If I were just riding the coattails of my grandfather and copying him, that would get old fast,” says Hank III. “I stand on my own two feet.”
Williams’ live shows typically follow a Jekyll and Hyde structure: a country music set featuring fiddle player Adam McOwen and slide guitar player Andy Gibson, followed by a heavy mixture of metal and hardcore punk. Two distinct sets emerge, one a trouncing, edgy arrangement for the alternative crowd, and the other a more orthodox country format for older fans. (His six-piece Damn Band, too, spans in age, from 30 to 60.)
Thus, Hank Williams III’s fan base ranges from tattooed, tongue-ringed teens and twenty-somethings more prone to body-surfing than line-dancing, to middle-aged ladies and old timers eager to hear the lad’s eerie resemblance to Hank Williams. Sometimes he even sings one of his grandfather’s signatures, like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
“I get the seniors who think that I’m the legend who has come back from the dead, who believe I’m my grandfather.”
On the nature of his sound, Hank III says that he has a message to labor.
“I’m very motivated to play, but there’s a couple of ways to look at it,” says Hank III. “I’m able to show people exactly how diverse of a musician I am, all at once. It’s never been done before. I’m just really pumped and looking forward for the new beginning and excited to get back on the road doing what we do. My shows are known to have a rowdy, respectful, loyal crowd.”
Hank III’s name is often associated with his contractual conflicts with Curb Records. He expressed unhappiness with his debut, even making t-shirts stating “(Expletive) Curb.” He has held a longstanding grievance against the Grand Ole Oprey for not respecting his grandfather’s contributions and for not acknowledging his own music’s authenticity.
“I don’t want to kill my reputation so bad in Nashville that I won’t be able to keep making music there,” he says. “The Grand Ole Opry needs to get off their asses and do what’s best for real country music. What fuels me, more than anything, more than my resentment of The Grand Ole Opry and all its hypocrisy, is heartbreak and fear of destitution.”
No matter where his path deviates or ends, Hank III, who self-produces his own music at his own pace, won’t be adhering to the mandates or conformities of the music industry.
“Here’s the big picture,” says Hank III. “I don’t go to an office and pump out ten songs a day, teamed with four other marketing people. I’m an artist – not a business guy. I work hard, I play hard.”
Hank Williams III plays at The Wilma Theater in Missoula on August 29.
Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.
Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. It’s available now for $2.00 as an eBook on Smashwords.