When Hank Williams III steps onto a nightclub stage, two things usually happen: Someone will challenge him on his name, and someone will bring him a drink. Both actions tread an eerie psychological fault line - one that haunts the intense 27-year-old singer who bears his legendary grandfather's name.
Just as significantly, both actions also reveal America's obsession with flawed mythic figures - artists whose fame is entangled in equal measures of talent and tragedy. It's one thing to question whether Williams bears his stage name honestly; it's a completely different thing to bring a shot of whiskey to the grandson of a man who drank and drugged himself to death - and the son of a man who has had his own public difficulties with liquor and drugs.
At least onstage, Hank Williams III has a ready response for both challenges. "There's always that guy who walks up while I'm singing and gives me the first shot," says the Nashvillian, whose rail-thin frame and gaunt face bear a haunting resemblance to his grandfather. "I'll always pick it up and shoot it right down. That will always get the biggest crowd response of the night. Then I'll hold up the empty glass and say, `Thank you for applauding my addiction!' "
As for the challenge on his name, Williams tells them to do the research. "It's right there on my birth certificate, `Shelton Hank Williams III,' " he says. "I'm not a fake."
As he's quick to explain, no one in his bloodline ever carried a name as straightforward as "Hank Williams." His grandfather, the most celebrated figure in country music history, was named Hiram Hank Williams. His father, who came to embody the link between country music and Southern rock, was named Randall Hank Williams, although by age 8 he was performing under the name Hank Williams Jr.
These responses only stir more questions and more intrigue about a mysterious young man who has emerged as one of the most interesting recent newcomers in country music. The more he opens his past and talks about his motivations and his plans, the more complex his story becomes.
Indeed, the more we learn about Hank Williams III, the more it seems that every generation gets the Hank Williams it deserves. For better or worse, all three men who've taken the name end up embodying the personal struggles that define the lives of young, white, working-class Southern men.
The first-generation Hank represented impoverished Southern men who struggled to maintain their dignity in the aftermath of World War II. The world they were born to had changed drastically: The South was becoming more industrialized, more mobile, and more urban-centered; women began to enjoy more freedoms; and men faced the opposing forces of a harshly religious upbringing and the worldly temptations now presented to them. No one wrote or sang about these developments with more concise color or punch than Hank Williams, and he became an icon both for the music he created and for the rowdy, conflicted life he led.
Hank Jr., in his own way, came to personify the blue-collar South of his generation. Like his son would do later, he originally started going by his middle name because of pressure to cash in on his father's fame. Later, though, he rebelled by growing his hair long and embracing Southern rock - the working-class music of his generation. Like many of his musical peers, he fought to escape the conservative, buttoned-down life of his father's generation. He did so by appropriating the freedoms of drink, drugs, and rampant womanizing - in other words, by following the hedonistic '70s rock 'n' roll path. In the process, Hank Jr. became a figurehead for the recalcitrant Southern redneck - a belligerently prideful, gun-toting, flag-waving country boy.
All that partying and womanizing and music-making left little time for fatherhood, however. That forced Shelton Williams to accept the consequences of what it was like to grow up under his own generation's particular set of difficult circumstances. Hank III has dealt with parental divorce, an absentee father, frequent moves around the country, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse. Left mostly to his own devices as his mother struggled to make a living and to find love, he found refuge in music - angry music, mostly. As a youngster, he started out listening to KISS and Ted Nugent, but he later forged a deeper, more important connection with the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, and other punk-rock radicals, all of whom presented an aggressive combination of rebellion and biting social sarcasm.
After a troublesome childhood that saw him bounced from private schools and public schools, Shelton Williams first entered the Nashville music scene as a frenetic teenage drummer in such popular Nashville grunge bands as Buzzkill, Bedwetter, and Rift. He rarely mentioned who his father and grandfather were. "I was just completely into drumming and playing punk music," he says. "That's all I cared about. I hated country music with a passion. I hated any kind of music that was commercial. That was the enemy."
His mother is Gwen Williams, who was the second wife of Hank Williams Jr. Shelton was so young when the couple split that he says he doesn't have much memory of living with his father. For a while, around the age of 10, his father occasionally took him fishing and hunting. "We got closer there for a while," he remembers. "But Mom had remarried, and we moved to Atlanta when I was 11. That was pretty much the end of [me and my father] spending time together."
Since Hank III bears a famous name, one might think he also bears the benefits of massive family fortune. He doesn't. "I ain't never seen no money from anyone," he says. "But I ain't asked for it either."
Unlike his father, who has always enjoyed the support of the enormous royalties garnered by the Hank Williams estate, Hank III doesn't receive any financial support from his family. Although he's decided to pursue the same career path, he contends that there will always be a distance between him and his father. "Even as a kid, once we moved away from Nashville, I never saw him much. I can see why. He was drinking and drugging and being with women - being Bocephus. I got to go out on the road with him a couple of times, but after a while you could tell he didn't want me around, that I was getting in his way."
From Atlanta, he moved with his mother and stepfather to North Carolina. By age 15, he was back in Nashville. By the time he graduated, he was known on campus as a drummer in a popular punk band. No one associated him with country music in any way.
At age 20, as his band started to gain a wider reputation, he got sued by a woman who said he'd impregnated her three years earlier. "It was a one-night stand," he says. "But her dad was a police captain, a vice cop. I took a blood test and got a $24,000 judgment."
As a struggling drummer, he was earning about $25 a show. "I didn't like it, but I had to do the right thing," he says. "It was my kid, you know? So I had to figure out a way to make money."
He hooked up with the late Jack McFadden, a prominent music industry manager who had worked with Buck Owens, Keith Whitley, Lorrie Morgan, and Billy Ray Cyrus. McFadden realized that he could sell the young musician to audiences as Hank Williams III. So the punk rocker cut his hair, put on a cowboy hat and Western clothes, and McFadden worked out a deal for a nightly gig in Branson, Missouri. He performed nothing but the catalog of Hank Williams night after night after night.
"Right off the bat, I got 50 shows," Williams says. "I was able to get by and pay my judgment. But that's what got me into it. That's what made me realize how good all that stuff is. It was rebel rock 'n' roll for its time, and it still is. It's got an attitude to it that started totally inspiring me. Country music had always been so-so to me. When I first got into it, I just wanted to see how much fucking money I could make. I thought I would do that and go back to punk rock. But I feel different about country music now."
Indeed, his debut album, Risin' Outlaw, is closer in tone to his grandfather's raw-boned '50s honky-tonk than to his father's electrified Southern rock. Onstage, when leading his honky-tonk band, Williams is even more unrefined and raucous than on album. He attacks his acoustic guitar with a fierce rhythmic downstroke, and he sings in a clenched, stringent tenor over a stripped-down band that merges the fiery string music of old-time country bands like the Skillet Lickers with the fiddle-and-steel honky-tonk of postwar performers like Hank Williams and Webb Pierce.
Released with little fanfare by Curb Records, the album has drawn an unusually positive response from both the rock and the country music press. Rolling Stone, which rarely writes about Nashville-based country acts, devoted a full-page story to Williams prior to the release of his album. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times also devoted an exceptional amount of space to him, a rare move considering that his album has barely sold in the tens of thousands. John Morthland, a veteran country music critic, summarized the album by writing, "This is what rockin' country is supposed to sound like."
More recently, Williams' hip factor got a boost when he was invited to be an opening act on the tours of L.A. funk/rock/folk alchemist Beck and Texas rockabilly punker Rev. Horton Heat. However, he surprised those who came prepared to see an up-and-coming honky-tonk act, turning his band instead into a thrashing hard-rock outfit.
"It freaked people out," he says. "There were people there who loved it, and there were people there who didn't."
Williams had been planning his rock move for some time. For months, he'd been utilizing guitarist Duane Dennison, previously a member of the noisy, confrontational Chicago band Jesus Lizard. Joining Hank III's band allowed Dennison to show off his Merle Travis-style country chops while also giving him a chance to do more aggressive playing along the lines of his work in Jesus Lizard. For the rock tours, Williams also recruited a new drummer, Shawn McWilliams, who has played with Fleming & John and Betty Rocker, and dropped his steel guitarist and fiddler.
Merle Kilgore, who has managed Hank Williams Jr. for more than two decades, says that the father indeed is proud of the music his son is making. "He's listened to it, and he's told Shelton that there's some real good things on part of his record," Kilgore says. "But man, it's tough following up your father and your grandfather in the same business. Good God - his father and grandfather are legends! But Shelton's really pursuing it, and he's got something."
Williams hopes that he can continue to keep leaping over a creative fence, playing country music when it's prudent and hard rock whenever possible. "I'm hoping I can have the best of both worlds," he says. "The good thing is the rock crowds like hearing me play rock and play country. But the country crowds only want to hear country and that's all. I can't help it that the rock crowds are more open-minded - and the girls are prettier."
"When I play country music, people always come up afterwards and tell me that I look and sound like my granddaddy," he says. "But when I play punk music, I have kids coming up saying, `Dude, you fucking rock!' It feels good when I get recognized for doing my own thing."
Hank Williams III plays with the .357s Oct 3 at 9pm Lynagh's. $15.