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Nashville Scene Family Tradition

Hank Williams III emerges with his own musical career

By Michael McCall, photos by Eric England

MARCH 13, 2000:  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 the hard rock of 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."

Even for many of his closest friends, the transformation from Shelton Williams to Hank Williams III has been as puzzling as it was unexpected. Even he expresses surprise at his evolution: He changed his name under financial duress, he says, and he started playing country music begrudgingly, at best. But now he wants people to believe he loves country music, and he plays it with conviction. He also wants them to understand that he loves punk rock too, and that he can play both country and punk without compromising himself or confusing his artistry. For people to follow his logic, though, he needs to go back and tell his story himself.

For our interview, Shelton Williams sits chain-smoking cigarettes in the front yard of an old bungalow he rents with three roommates on Eastland Avenue in East Nashville. He's perched on the hood of a beige, early-'60s model Cadillac, complete with chrome grill and exaggerated tail fins. Two other early-model Caddies rest in the driveway. The house is in disrepair, and the yard is filled with old cars, some that run and some that don't. Inside, the floors and walls appear to have been ignored for years, and the rooms are packed with stage gear, ashtrays, crumpled fast-food sacks, cigarette-filled beer cans, empty liquor bottles, and discarded soft-drink cans. "There's four of us here now," Williams says, sitting outside in a skintight, ribbed-cotton tank top that's tucked into baggy, thrift-shop slacks. "That gets the rent down to $137 a month each. It makes a difference. It helps keep us going."

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."

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."

From Atlanta, he moved with his mother and stepfather to North Carolina. By age 15, he was back in Nashville. He attended Brentwood Academy but was asked to leave before he finished eighth grade. From then on, he attended public school. He eventually graduated from Franklin High School at age 19. By then, his mother had divorced and moved to Los Angeles, and Shelton moved in with the family of a friend. 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, Mo. 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. More specialized magazines proved just as supportive, with Williams drawing favorable reviews in the alternative-country publications No Depression and Country Standard Time. 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. Those people who came expecting me to play country music were disappointed, of course, and I understand that. From now on, I hope people will know that if we're playing a country style of club, we'll be playing country music. But if we're playing in a rock setting, we'll be rocking it out."

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.

"I think there's something about what Kid Rock is doing that could maybe go over in a hillbilly kind of way," Williams says. "I got a lot of cowpunk, crazy-fast acoustic songs that could be done really cool."

At the moment, though, Williams lives the life of a struggling artist. Even after spending two months as an opening act on sizable rock tours, he doesn't have enough money to pay his bills. "They only pay the opening act $500, and I've got to pay for the band and the bus and everything out of that," he says.

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."

These days, it's not much different. "It's not like we're hanging out or nothing like that. It's more of a 'Hey, what's up?' kind of thing. I see how a lot of relationships are with other guys and their fathers. Mine's different. There will always be a little bit of weirdness there. I mean, I can relate, in a way. I've got a kid I don't see, so I've got the same fucking thing staring me down in the face. It's not like I'm living a clean life; it's not the best environment for a kid. That's what happened with me and my dad too, you know?"

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."

Hank III's father also showed up unexpectedly last summer, when he joined a gathering of record executives, family members, and friends who organized an intervention to persuade the young singer to go into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Waylon Jennings was another family friend who took part. The son did participate in a rehab program, but he now admits that he still drinks, smokes pot, and occasionally takes drugs.

"I finally just told Waylon and my dad, 'Look, you have to give me time to max out,' " Williams says. "I'm just doing the same thing you fuckers did. I'm going to keep a limit on it a little bit."

He laughs when he recalls how Jennings once came by to visit him one-on-one. As Jennings started into his personal testimony, Williams cut him off, saying that he's not done half of what Jennings probably did in his day. The older outlaw singer just smiled, stood up, told him he had a good point, patted him on the back, wished him luck, and walked out the door.

"I've never puked onstage," Williams says. "I've never been so drunk I couldn't do a show. The only gig I ever missed was because I was sent to rehab. When it's time to do a show, I can get ready. And someday, once I meet that great gal out there, I'll be able to clean up and stick around."

Mike Curb, who signed Hank Williams III to his record contract, initially contended in a phone interview that Williams was sober. After hearing that Williams spoke openly about continuing to drink and do drugs, he said, "I think a person's life is more important than a hit record," he says. "A person's life and health are more important. But I feel like Shelton's doing great right now."

For his own part, Williams says, "I'm going to do whatever the hell I want, and they know it. That's part of what's getting the buzz out about me, that I'm defying Nashville or whatever you want to call it. But all I want to do is make the music I hear in my head. Hopefully, I'll get some respect for what I'm doing and they'll realize that I'm onto something that a lot of people, old and young, will like."

He also hopes, for now, 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."

The more he talks about it, the more evident it becomes that sooner or later he'll face the same decision that his father confronted: At some point, he has to step out from under the shadow of his family legacy and make a stand with a sound of his own. "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."


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