There was a time in the lexicon of American music when the term “bluegrass” did not exist. In those days, the music now known as “bluegrass” was called “country & western,” perhaps with the occasional “hillbilly music” thrown in.
The road that brought us to our present conception of “country” music (and its incestuous father/brother bluegrass) is too complex to review here, however briefly. Allow me to let it rest with this: to write a good “country” song, it was once necessary to plumb the depths of human emotion. The lingua franca of the early country performer was lonesomeness and sorrow.
In today’s world, one sitting down to write a country song must meditate on the aesthetics of a Dodge Truck or the subtleties of professional football. And while a catchy jingle for NASCAR may earn you respect in Nashville, a truly authentic country song will likely get you banished from Nashville.
One such exiled country singer is Hank Williams III, the grandson of a legend and son of that other guy. He plays a country not divorced from its roots and not ashamed of them. He sings songs about whiskey, weed and women, while his band (pedal steel, upright bass, drums and fiddle) makes one long for the Depression and the authentic humanity we seem to have since put aside.
At the State Theatre in St. Pete on Saturday, Hank the Three put on a show. Despite being engaged in a battle with his label, Curb Records, Hank and the boys had their act together. They played fast and frantic. They played high and lonesome. Hank yodeled and hollered. The crowd generally agreed, and hollered back. The banner over the stage emblazoned with the slogan “F— Curb Records!” may have played a part as they chanted the slogan in solidarity.
At this point, after around an hour and a half, they took a break. Hank warned the crowd that “the heavy stuff” was coming up and that we were welcome to leave.
We didn’t. We like the heavy stuff.
Hank III came back out a different man, cowboy hat off and ponytail let loose. They played metal, which as far as I know has always been called metal. (There was no quasi-rapping, however, and it was not “NÃ¼”…)
This seems, at first blush, like a strange combination of sets. The “country & western” traditional stomp into, well … the stomping of tradition. However, it’s like the old commercial where Reese’s recipe was “discovered”:
“You got bluegrass in my metal.”
“Yeah? You got metal in my country!”
“Oh … mmm. It’s delicious!”
In the second set, having already tricked the emotions out of your designer-clothed and cell-phone laden husk, Hank pulls out all the stops and completes the catharsis. To the crowd, made vulnerable by the lonesome whistles of the pedal steel, the “heavy stuff” hits like a lead bat. Hank’s voice is no longer honey-smooth, it is gravel-rough.
Now even the stiffest neck gets loose, even the Gap khakis meet the grime of the State Theatre floor. The second set lets you get pissed off, instead of just lonesome and sorrowful. So for every die-hard country fan who leaves after the first set, and for every metal-head who comes for AssJack (it’s what they call the “heavy stuff”), I have this advice: The strange juxtaposition of these music genres is no accident. Watch the whole show. You’ll get the feeling a magic trick, or some sort of alchemical feat, is being performed.
Hank Williams III in concert is like a balm for the apathetic youth of 2002. He lulls you into a reverie of whiskey and lost love, a beautiful soundscape that pulls you in more effectively for its “antiquated” sound. Once he’s got you remembering those good old days when you had that gal, and everythang was OK, you’re as good as got. You get lonely, drunk and happy. You have been tricked out of your “more cynical-than-thou” perch and down onto the dirt earth, where real country music is made.
In today’s world, a bit of depression or anger is more normal than aberrant. So save yourself the hassle and money of whatever New Thing the Pharmaceutical Cartel is pushing on the Bravo Channel. Just have the courage to admit to yourself that you need therapy, and go see Hank.
Contact Jesse Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org