Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Hunch Is Back

Hasil Adkins enjoys the Fat of the land.

By Tristram Lozaw

JUNE 8, 1998:  Those who say there are no new rock bands, no late-'90s acts with the real soul and sound of rock, are looking in the wrong places. The rough-and-tumble roster of Mississippi's Fat Possum Records has plenty of new acts radiating the fresh-from-the-woods energy of rock's blues roots. That's "new" as in you probably haven't heard of them before -- not as in "young." Most acts on the label are in or near their senior years but making their first national splash.

Fat Possum, whose better known "discoveries" have included blues vets R.L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, has taken a handful of its other real-thing winners and put them on the road together as part of "The Eye Scratchers and Ball Kickers Tour," which stops at the House of Blues next Thursday and Friday. The caravan includes former chain-ganger T-Model Ford, Mississippi scratchcats Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, guitarman Robert Cage with his John Lee Hooker grit, and one-man hillbilly band Hasil Adkins, all of whom have new albums. Like any good rocker, these artists have a gritty, wild, almost feral magnetism to match their ragged brilliance. And the wildest, most ragged, and possibly most brilliant of the bunch is the Hunch, the Haze, the legendary mountain man Hasil Adkins.

When my initial attempts to phone Adkins resulted in unanswered calls and busy signals, I could only imagine what mischief ol' Haze might be up to. My first visit, some years ago, to Adkins's Deliverance-style compound in Boone County, West Virginia, played like a scene from Jesco the Dancing Outlaw (a troubling but hilarious video documentary that stars some of Hasil's pals). There was a rumpled Hasil with vodka in his coffee, young "Hunchin' thang" girls, their older female keeper, a hound, the family shack plastered with memorabilia, and a personal junkyard that included several trailers and a New York City transit bus -- all pumped with the dust and chemical residue of the Appalachian environment. But a friend in West Virginia tells me that Hasil's free-for-alls are a thing of the past, that his shows are more even than ever. He's tamed his act enough to do interviews to promote the tour. He'll probably even show up for it.

When Hasil does answer the phone -- it's been busy with interviewers, he explains -- he's exuberant that his music is finally getting attention some 40 years into his career. "People are hearing me that have never heard of me before," he says, calling Fat Possum the best record people he's worked with since the release of his first single, "Wild Man," in 1961. He's recorded dozens since, including the immortal "The Hunch" and "She Said," the latter covered by the Cramps. Back in '94 he inked a big deal with Miles Copeland of IRS fame, who bought the rights to Hasil's recordings. Adkins completed an album but Copeland never released it. "All he done was pick up the publishing money that had piled up since 1961. He paid me some, but nothin' like what he took in." Adkins says Fat Possum, distributed by Epitaph, is helping him get his songs back and will eventually re-release all of them on CD.

When Hasil went to Money Shot studios in Oxford, Mississippi, last fall, he had no plans for what or even when he would record. "I never practice. When I write a song and go in front of people to play, that's when I learn it." He dragged a cot into the studio; tape rolled whenever he felt inspired. Hasil estimates he recorded "only" 70 to 80 songs, most written on the spot. "I'll go back and do another 150 after this tour."

At home, Hasil records on ancient equipment in his trailer. Over the phone, he plays me his latest great-balls-of-fire creation, "The Clinton Blues." "I made it in the middle of the night, just as I thought of it." It's a full-bore stomp of naturally distorted clamor enhanced by the lo-fi phone lines. He had sung his spontaneous composition while playing electric guitar, whistles, drums, and other undetermined and not-quite-tuned instruments. Hasil got the idea for his one-man band as a youngster listening to Hank Williams on the radio, figuring that Hank not only sang but played all the instruments. This novelty, along with Adkins's psychotic edge and rap sheet with the local gendarmes, has led some to look at his music as wild-eyed comedy. Such notions should be dashed by the new What the Hell Was I Thinking, which has a tone reminiscent of old Carter Family and Leadbelly recordings. The lonely groan of the leadoff track, "Your Memories," is harsh yet tender. And the locomotive dementia of "Stay with Me" and "Gone Gone Gone" cuts to the loose, rhythmic essence of rock.

The "Eye Scratchers" trek is Adkins's biggest tour to date. Although unfamiliar with the term "groupie," he has a penchant for female, uh, fans, and he threatens to bring a carload on tour. But for once, Adkins's career is keeping him busy enough to keep him out of trouble, at least the serious, self-destructive trouble of lore. "In place of a one-man band I'm gonna start me an opera, with piano, organ, saxophone, flute, whistles, everything at once." Even at 62, he's got a rock-and-roll craziness that tells him he can.

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